Four Downs

Offseason analysis of the NFL, division by division

Four Downs: AFC North

by Ryan Wilson

Also check out the previous edition of Four Downs: AFC North.

Baltimore Ravens

Since the last edition of Four Downs, Jamal Lewis has graduated from prison to a halfway house, the Ravens made Todd Heap the highest paid tight end in the league, and Deion Sanders signed on for one more year.

Since Lewis only has one more year left on his contract, Baltimore would like to get a deal done sometime before the season starts. This move seems curious since (a) Lewis is coming off an injury-plagued 2004 season that also included a two-game suspension for drug charges, and (b) after a 2,000-yard season in 2003, Lewis had only three 100-yard rushing games (out of the 11 full games he played) last season. If Baltimore is unable to sign Lewis, they may consider franchising him.

The Ravens front office also considers Todd Heap an important part of this offense, as was evidenced by the new six-year deal he signed earlier this month. Like Lewis, Heap missed a lot of action last season because of a high ankle sprain. This off-season he had knee and shoulder surgeries and he won't be 100 percent until late into preseason.

Offensive coordinator Jim Fassel has stressed the importance yards after catch during minicamp and will continue to preach that message heading into the season. Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton are both well suited to for this role but this will all be contingent on Kyle Boller's ability to get them the ball. This spring Fassel mentioned that he wanted to have Boller's completion percentage around 65%, which is roughly 10% higher than his career average. This is equivalent to Ray Lewis asking for a $50 million signing bonus even though he's at least two years removed from his last dominating season.

Deion Sanders will be 38 in August but Baltimore hopes to pencil him in as the nickel back and 35-year old Dale Carter at dime back. Last season Sanders only played in nine games because of injuries, and Carter missed the entire season because of a blood clot. After Sanders and Carter, names like Raymond Walls and Chad Williams litter the depth chart, which means that if any starter goes down, one of the best secondaries in the AFC could quickly become a liability.

It's been well documented that the Ravens will switch from the 3-4 to the 4-3 and 46 formations. This means that cornerbacks Samari Rolle and Chris McAllister will be put in a lot of man coverage with safety Ed Reed playing centerfield. Reed, arguably the best defensive player in the league, has two years left on his contract, but he's also eager to sign a new deal. He'll make $550,000 in 2005, which is roughly 1/100 of the signing bonus Ray Lewis wants on his next contract.

Cincinnati Bengals

One of the questions heading into training camp was the health of two former first rounders, WR Peter Warrick and RB Chris Perry. Warrick missed much of last season with a broken leg and there was some speculation that he would be released this off-season. That has yet to happen, but if Warrick does remain in Cincinnati he may see a reduced role because of the emergence of slot receiver Kelley Washington and the addition of third round pick, Chris Henry.

The other nominee for "biggest first-round bust still employed by the team that drafted him" is Perry. He is recovering from sports hernia surgery and might be finally healthy enough to actually participate in training camp. Ironically, now that Perry is healthy, the Bengals may end up going with Kenny Watson as Rudi Johnson's backup since he did such a good job in that role in 2004.

Defensively, Cincinnati hopes that their first and second round draft picks from this past April can immediately step into starting roles and contribute. OLB David Pollack and ILB Odell Thurman are both physical and fast and the more they become comfortable with the defense -- and in Pollack's case, a move from defensive end -- the more consistent this unit should be.

The Bengals also strengthened their practice squad this week when they signed former Ohio State QB Craig Krenzel. Of course, that's assuming he's able to beat out the Bengals current number three, Casey Bramlet (fresh off his NFL Europe season) and rookie free agent Josh Haldi.

Cleveland Browns

Ruben Droughns was traded to Cleveland this spring and promptly held out for a new contract thanks in part to the advice of his agent, Drew Rosenhaus. Droughns, now the anti-T.O., has since ended his holdout -- even though he doesn't have a new deal -- proving that just because you demand more money doesn't mean (a) you're going to get it, and (b) you're worth it. The fact that head coach Romeo Crennel announced that the starting job was Lee Suggs's to lose probably also hastened Droughns's return.

Guard Ross Verba never got that far. He also demanded a new contract -- one that was promised to him by Butch Davis -- and Cleveland promptly signed L.J. Shelton and gave Verba his walking papers. According to Steve Doerschuk of the Canton Repository, many in the Cleveland locker room were glad to see Verba go because of his surly demeanor and perceived selfishness.

Still, there are some questions about the offensive line, especially if any of the starters are lost to injury. RT Ryan Tucker and C Jeff Faine are returning from knee injuries and Cleveland just signed T Marcus Spears primarily as a run-blocker. The success of this unit will be critical to establishing the running game and, perhaps more importantly, keeping Trent Dilfer off his bum, which is no small feat when you consider that he's a bigger, slower version of Jeff Garcia (with the same haircut, however).

Making matters more complicated is the fact that the Browns will be without Kellen Winslow for all of 2005. His replacements, Aaron Shea and Steve Heiden, are both underrated, and the tight end position may still play an important role in this offense, especially if opposing defenses look to double team Braylon Edwards, Antonio Bryant, or Dennis Northcutt on a regular basis.

Currently the depth chart lists rookie Charlie Frye and second-year practice squad regular Josh Harris as Dilfer's backups. Because of this inexperience, the Browns signed veteran Doug Johnson, the same guy who replaced Michael Vick in 2003 when he went down in the preseason with a broken leg. In that season, Johnson made eight starts, threw for 1,655 yards and sported a -10.6 DPAR. He is the only backup quarterback to have a FO fundamental law named after him.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Heading into training camp the biggest concern for the Pittsburgh Steelers is depth along the offensive line. Gone are RG Keydrick Vincent (Baltimore) and RT Oliver Ross (Arizona) and in their place are former first round pick Kendall Simmons and second year player Max Starks. Simmons is returning from a knee injury and Starks is unproven. He's listed at 6'7", 335 lbs and is the biggest lineman on the roster. There have been some questions about his footwork, but this could be trial by fire since perennial backup Barrett Brooks and 2005 third round pick Trai Essex are behind him on the depth chart. Although the Steelers' offensive line had three Pro Bowlers last season, the depth chart is comprised of journeymen and rookies.

First round pick TE Heath Miller should be fully healed from a sports hernia injury he suffered during his junior season at Virginia. His athleticism will give Roethlisberger an option in the middle of the field while also taking some of the pressure off a receiving corps that will be without Plaxico Burress for the first time in five seasons.

Heading into the off-season, the Steelers made it clear that re-signing Hines Ward to a long-term deal was a top priority. Ward has one year remaining on his contract and he's slated to make $1.7 million in 2005, which would've ranked 15th best last season. Interestingly, while there has been no progress in the negations, Ward doesn't consider holding out of training camp a real option.

DT Casey Hampton also has one year left on his contract and Pittsburgh might wait until after the season to try and re-sign him. Hampton is coming off a serious knee injury that kept him out most of last season, and because he's one of the best nose tackles in the league, his asking price could end up being too high. As insurance, the Steelers re-signed his replacement, Chris Hoke. Hoke was signed as an undrafted free agent out of BYU, and after spending his first few seasons not even dressing for games, his play was a pleasant surprise. The defense, at least statistically, improved with him as the starter.

CB Willie Williams will head into training camp as the starter even though he's almost 35 years old. Pittsburgh has stocked up at the defensive back position in recent years and last year's second round pick, Ricardo Colclough, could eventually replace Williams as the season progresses. The Steelers also took Florida State's Bryant McFadden with this year's second round pick. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Gerry Dulac, McFadden could see more playing time because the organization is becoming increasingly frustrated with the slow progress of third-year player Ike Taylor.

Next week: NFC South by Russell Levine.


59 comments, Last at 28 Nov 2005, 9:40am

1 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by B // Jun 22, 2005 - 2:39pm

I notice Lee Suggs gets mentioned in the Doug Johnson law. Not a good sign for Cleveland.

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2 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by Israel // Jun 22, 2005 - 2:48pm

You write:
There have been some questions about his footwork, but this could be trial by fire since perennial backup Barrett Brooks and 2004 third round pick Trai Essex are behind him on the depth chart.

Trai Essex was picked in 2005.

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3 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by Israel // Jun 22, 2005 - 2:53pm

I still worry that Kendall Simmons will play the role of Kendrell Bell. If he goes down again, who plays RG - Chukky Okobe? The draft choice from Utah who kicks people?

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4 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by MDS // Jun 22, 2005 - 2:54pm

I agree that the Ravens shouldn't make a new deal with Jamal Lewis a high priority for all the reasons you mentioned. I also think Chester Taylor is a good option at a good price if Lewis goes elsewhere.

Ed Reed for $550,000 is a great bargain. Is he just a holdout waiting to happen?

I think it's too early to call Chris Perry a bust. I thought the Bengals drafted him too early last year (Kevin Jones and Julius Jones were among the other running backs on the board), but I would like to see him get a chance to get some regular carries.

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5 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by Jerry garcia // Jun 22, 2005 - 3:53pm

What's up with all the hype regarding Reed? Is he really one of the best players in the game today, or is this just hype? (Seems kind of irrational to me) Do you think it's crazy or is there really any substance to that?

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6 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by Goldbach // Jun 22, 2005 - 4:29pm

Jamal Lewis was only suspended for 2 games last year. It wasn't a typical drug violation suspension, since he didn't actually test positive for anything.

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7 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by B // Jun 22, 2005 - 4:40pm

Ed Reed is the best player on the Ravens, the best free saftey in the league and in the top 10 overall.

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8 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by zip // Jun 22, 2005 - 4:49pm

Reed also runs a lot of INTs/fumbles back for TDs, which really helps his 'star player' image.

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9 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by TMK // Jun 22, 2005 - 5:04pm

Getting a Lewis deal done now isn't that curious; it's standard Ozzie Newsome approach. Lewis is probably in better condition now than he was at any time during the 2004 season, but with all the questions surrounding last year and the wear and tear of the 2003 season, locking him up for a mid-term contract at the Ravens' price would make sense.

If Lewis has a year close to 2000 or 2002, say, the price goes up significantly after this season. Given the upgrades to the Ravens' passing game and O-line this offseason, that could be possible even if he isn't physically at 2003 levels, given less focus on him by opposing defenses.

What WOULD be curious is if Lewis signs a deal before the season. It's not much of a gamble for him, especially if Boller doesn't step up as much as expected.

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10 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by ABW // Jun 22, 2005 - 5:34pm


Interesting that you should say that. According to he's had 3 TDs in his career, although one of them was that 106 yd. return, which was one of the best highlights of the year. He also returned 1 fumble for a TD this year, and got another one off an interception last year. So he's done pretty well as far as TDs, but I don't know that it's really that out of the ordinary - there were 46 other players who returned an INT for a TD last year, and 5 who did it twice!

I think mostly he's just had the one amazing return which got played on ESPN over and over that's creating this perception that he's got a Deion-like nose for the end zone which I don't think is really justified. If he gets a couple more TDs this year it will be though.

He is one of the best defensive players in the league though and well deserving of the award.

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11 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by NwD // Jun 22, 2005 - 6:47pm

the amount of money reed is on is a joke. not only did he top the nfl in picks last season he also averaged over 30 yards return each time. the guy is a serious player on their d, perhaps the best guy they have, and its about they recognised that with a new contract otherwise he's going to hold out and who can blame him?....

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12 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by Luz // Jun 22, 2005 - 7:18pm

all i want to know is: when are the steelers and ward finally going to come to terms.

they're are some other players, like casey hampton, that i'd like the steelers to negotiate with.

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13 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by malene, dk // Jun 22, 2005 - 8:18pm

zip, I think that's a bit unfair, consciously or not.

2 Ints returned for TD, 1 fumble. In 48 games over 3 years?

That's hardly enough to substantially influence the perception of his overall excellence.

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14 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by Malene, dk // Jun 22, 2005 - 8:21pm

sorry ABW, forgot to refresh before I posted. Redundant post. Excellent point though ;-)

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15 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by RyanW // Jun 22, 2005 - 8:33pm

Israel, Goldbach:

You guys were right -- Essex was drafted this April and Jamal Lewis was only suspended for two games. Fixed. Thanks.

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16 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by Johonny // Jun 22, 2005 - 8:48pm

"This spring Fassel mentioned that he wanted to have Boller’s completion percentage around 65%, which is roughly 10% higher than his career average"

The statement is funny but really who wouldn't want their QB to complete 65% of their passes. It's hard to tell if Jim really can instill an offense designed to complete the ball more. Boller completion percentage was much different last year than a typical Fassel Giants season.

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17 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by Dan // Jun 22, 2005 - 9:37pm

Ed Reed is the best defensive player on the Ravens, and the second best free safety in the league. Brian Dawkins is still the best. The man is just never, ever out of position, and he plays the pass coverage as well as most CBs. They're used for different purposes, which is why Dawkins' INT numbers are lower (4, compared to 9 last year for Reed.) Dawkins also had 3 sacks compared to Reed's 2 and is always in the play. Note: I'm not disrespecting Ed Reed at all, I just think Dawkins is still better. Two years from now, who knows? In a fantasy draft I'd take Reed first simply for the age difference (slightly less than 5 years.)

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18 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by Chris // Jun 22, 2005 - 11:01pm

Regarding Ed Reed and Brian Dawkins who's better at what:
Coverage:Reed(by a large margin)
Speed:Reed(by a large margin)
Catching:Reed(by a large margin)
RunCoverage:Dawkins(by a little but still considerable amount)
Tackling:Dawkins(by a moderate amount)
Pursuit:Reed (by a little bit)
Shedding blockers: Dawkins

SO, as a FS Reed is considerably better than Dawkins, and as a hybrid LB/S Dawkins is considerably better. Overall Ed Reed is better, and he's younger too.

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19 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by Reinhard // Jun 22, 2005 - 11:45pm

There were two games last year, one against GB and the other against Atlanta in the playoffs when the quarterback had a reciever running a deep flag route with Dawkins in cover two. Both times the QB tried to overthrow the reciever a little bit because of decent coverage so that only the WR would be able to catch it, but Dawkins appeared from his zone and was one or two steps ahead of the WR and made a offensive-player-looking over the shoulder catch. My point: great hands.

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20 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by vic // Jun 23, 2005 - 10:34am

Is there any news regarding Peter Warrick status?

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21 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by MDS // Jun 23, 2005 - 11:38am

Dan and Chris, you guys both referred to Reed as a free safety. Every Ravens game I saw he played on the strong side. On my all-pro team I had Reed as the strong safety and Dawkins as the free safety. I'd hate to have to choose who's better, although I'd rather have Reed on my team because he is five years younger and seems to be continuing to improve.

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22 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by calig23 // Jun 23, 2005 - 12:10pm

I think one of the reasons Reed gets hyped up so much is because he is a fantasy football beast. If you're in a league that allows you to have defensive players, Reed should be the number one D-player taken, period, in my opinion.

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23 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by Theo // Jun 23, 2005 - 12:12pm

Reed is a Strong Safety.
They line up more towards the LOS. Covering a short zone or a TE. The FS is then almost always covering over. Thats in Cover 1 or some hybrid of it.

In other systems, you can't realy tell the difference (Cover 2 for example) only that the SS lines up at the strong side.

Referring to the Reed / Dawkins comparrison you wouls say by those qualities that Reed would be the better FS and Dawkins the better SS.

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24 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by B // Jun 23, 2005 - 12:29pm

When I ranked Reed as the best FS in the league, It hought Dawkins was a SS. Don't the Eagles run a scheme that relies more on the coverage ability of the corners and uses the safties in blitz packages a lot? Maybe that is what's lead to the confusion. The Eagles essiantly have two strong safties, although either one of them is quite good in coverarage.

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25 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by Luz // Jun 23, 2005 - 12:59pm

i think it will be interesting to compare troy polamalu and reed this year. polamalu will be in his third year and that's usually the time where guys make a big leap. he struggled his rookie year and last year started flashing some great ability. if i recall, last year was reeds third year and that's when it became very obvious that he's the best ravens player.

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26 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by Dan L // Jun 23, 2005 - 4:10pm

On the Eagles depth chart (click my name) Dawkins is listed at FS and Michael Lewis at SS. Nevertheless, I take your point, B, about Dawkins playing more of a SS game. Sorry for the thread hijacking.

What does everybody think of Lee Suggs? I saw him play almost every college game he ever played, and he was a beast back then. Of course, he tore his ACL in '01 and wasn't quite the same platooning with Kevin Jones in '02. Still, the guy used to have a nose for the end zone like you wouldn't believe. I haven't seen him play at all in the pros, but his statistics look abominable. The only other thing I know is that Peter King (I think it was him) thought he had it in him to be a really unique back.

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27 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by B // Jun 23, 2005 - 5:27pm

Lee Suggs gets a "played behind a crappy O-Line" excemption for his performance last year.

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28 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by malene, dk // Jun 23, 2005 - 6:39pm

Re: 17, 18, 20-25:

oh my...
oh, oh, oh, dear...



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29 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by charles // Jun 23, 2005 - 8:38pm

The bengals are destined to be the saints of the afc. Great potential in the passing game, good pass rushing d-line, no run defense, gets off to poor starts in the beginning of the season and comes on strong later.

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30 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by B // Jun 24, 2005 - 9:56am

Well, technicially #37 is a strong saftey, but I'm sure Rodney "Dangerfield" Harrison can take this conversation as a sign of disrespect if he really wants to.

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31 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by Waverly // Jun 24, 2005 - 10:32am

Re: 28

Who is No. 37? I don't know any 37.


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32 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by Starshatterer // Jun 24, 2005 - 10:32am

(#28, #30, et al )--

I think ol' RH, were he made aware of this topic, would simply use it to justify one of his "nobody believed in us" tirades later in the season.

Regarding the, um, actual topic here, it's a tough thing to pick who's going up or down in any division. The Steelers finished six games ahead of the Ravens and seven ahead of the Bengals last year. On one hand, it means the Steelers are likelier to decline this year; on another, it means the place-and-show teams have a long way to climb. The Ravens and Bengals could each pick up a win from last year's record, with the Steelers giving back three, and Pittsburgh still wins the division by two.

Going into details, I find it easier to believe that Pittsburgh will groom adequate backups for the O-line, than that the additions of Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton will suddenly turn Kyle Boller into an accurate passer. Roethlisberger showed a certain competence and confidence last year; he should get better this year (even if his winning percentage regresses to the mean).

The Bengals are much more of a wild card. If Carson Palmer continues to improve, and if Rudi Johnson produces well again, and if the defensive starters click, and if they avoid catasrophic injury, then they could win 10 or 11 games. Maybe more -- but that scenario's just too iffy. (/me ducks bad pun fallout.)

As far as this division goes, the Browns are there to provide six wins for the other teams. I like Romeo Crennel a lot, but he's trying to make stone soup with mostly stones in the cupboard.

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33 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by Luz // Jun 24, 2005 - 11:50am

i think you're bang-on with your analysis starshatterer. in my mind the biggest "if" for the steelers is whether staley can stay healthy all year. he looked good early but even bettis doesn't think he can step in and take over half of the season again.

i'm also curious to see the ravens new "46" defense. it could turn out to be a pretty devastating defense or it could leave the defense wide open to the big play. i think the steelers and bungles offense vs. the new look ravens defense will be one of the more interesting sidebars in the afc north this year.

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34 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by J // Jun 24, 2005 - 12:54pm

Here's my look at the Steelers...

QB...Ben will need to improve, and show last season was not a fluke. He was 3rd in DVOA ranking and 10th in DPAR; not too shabby for a rookie. Last year, he had the ability to make the big throw and keep the chains moving. Also, having a backup vet QB, who knows the system and is reasonably priced, is great for the Steelers. Tommy Gun provides the Steelers with depth. I think the Steelers are in great shape in the QB department.

RB Dan Kreider is one of the best blocking backs in the league. The Bus has a lot of mileage, but will be great in short yardage situations and ball controlling drives. Staley will be the feature back. His health always seems to be a question, but the Steelers do have great depth at RB. Haynes is a decent 3rd down guy. WIllie Parker, who ran for over 100 yards against the #1 DVOA ranked DEF last year (ranked #2 in run def) - BUF, has great speed, and showed the strength to break tackles. Look for him to get more carries this year, esp. if Staley gets hurt. I liked what I saw of Parker last year...I liked it a lot. The Steelers have skill and depth in the backfield...maybe missing a great catching RB.

TE Heath Miller, if the scouts were right, should be able to provide a much needed, middle-of-the-field air attack. He will have to prove he can block, or he will not see much action. Tuman is decent, and provides depth. I don't know much about Ratsby.

Well, I thought I had more time, but...maybe I will finish this later.

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35 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by Basilicus // Jun 25, 2005 - 3:03am

Well, I posted this in an extra point, but it's rather relevant, so I'll take the liberty of copy-pasting what I said there: I have to say I think the Bengals might be the best team in the division this year. The offense basically requires the passing game to fall into sync, a lot of which should be helped by Palmer’s second full year as a starter and the return of pretty much the same receiving corps. I think the Steelers will take a big step back as Cowher and Roethlisberger look like two trains on the same track aiming right at each other, I’m not sure the Ravens are going to be much better than 8-8 and that Jamal Lewis is going to sync up as well as he has in the past, and the Browns are obviously in complete rebuilding mode. Actually, I think the Bengals might have the two best QBs in the division, to boot.

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36 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by LnGrrrR // Jun 25, 2005 - 6:47am

I'd like to also point out that Reed had another int that was returned for a TD and then called back...and this was, I believe, the game after his 106 yrd int td return.

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37 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by Israel // Jun 25, 2005 - 5:08pm

Speaking of #37, as some of you were:

Didn't Deion wear 37 last year because of his age? Does that mean he pays rookie Bill Alford to give up #38 for this year?

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38 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by Luz // Jun 25, 2005 - 5:51pm

neon deon said he plans to stick with 37. not like it matters though, since he'll probably pull something by week 2 at the latest.

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39 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by Balaji // Jun 25, 2005 - 6:11pm

Basilicus: "I think the Steelers will take a big step back as Cowher and Roethlisberger look like two trains on the same track aiming right at each other"

I don't think this is as big an issue as you make it out to be. From everything I've read, Terry Bradshaw and Chuck Noll had a strained relationship as well, and they seemed to do okay in the long run.

Obviously the coach-QB relationship isn't irrelevant, but I think it's a bit of stretch to conclude that this issue alone will derail the Steelers.

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40 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by Sebastian // Jun 25, 2005 - 6:15pm

#37: Nope, he doesn't.

#32: I think your analysis is a little dubious (dunno if you're a Steelers fan) but it looks as if the teams were somehow "tied" to last years results. If the Ravens win in week one and the Steelers lose, the Ravens are leading by one, not down by four (sounds kind of ridiculous, but you know what I'm trying to tell you, right?)

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41 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by Basilicus // Jun 25, 2005 - 6:54pm

It's not just Cowher/Roethlisberger - I just don't know if that team can keep up as well as it did last year. I think Roethlisberger, though he's good, is going to take a step back, kind of like he did late in the season last year. I also think the Ravens and Bengals won't be quite as easy to beat - Pittsburgh won't go 5-1 in the division like they did last year.

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42 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by J // Jun 27, 2005 - 12:58am

continue of 34

OL...The left side of the line, M Smith and A Faneca are excellant players, and do not have a history of injuries. The center J Hartings is solid to great; however, he is getting old and his knees could be a concern. The right side, K Simmons and M Starks (??...won't know the starter until training camp is completed) are a question. Before Simmons got injured last preseason he was looking great. If he can maintain his health, he will be. RT is the biggest question mark as far as starters on the Steelers roster. Starks is big and strong, but reportedly (have not seen him play much) has foot work problems; as Ryan wrote. The Steelers do lack depth on the line, and there season will hinge on the starters staying healthy...proof..the 2003 Steelers...but then again, the same could be said for most teams in the NFL. As some in prior threads have reported, the missing of a game by an OL is the 3rd worst postion to over come...QB and WR are harder to overcome. That said, if the Steelers OL starters can stay healthy, they should be very good. If not, they will have a disappointing season.

WR...Ward will be Ward, if not better. If he does not get a contract extention, he will be playing for a big salary...probably not on the Steelers. Randle El will be playing for a contract...IMO, Cedric Wilson was signed this offseason to replace Randle El....and should have more opportunies to make plays. Rookie Fred Gibson should see some time, but I do not know much about him. Undrafted free agent Zamir Cobb looked relatively impressive last training camp before getting injured for the season. The Steelers will want to see if he can produce in the NFL. Lee Mays could see time, but to date, has not been able to produce. The Steelers have a decent set of receivers and some depth. Keeping in mind the run heavy type of OFF system the Steelers have, I think the WR will be able to get the job done.

DL...THe front three, Smith, Hampton, and Von Oelhoffen, are very skilled. Hampton is coming off knee surgery, and could be a question. He will be playing for a contract. Von Oelhoffen is getting old, and health might be a problem. However, they do have solid depth on the DL. Hoke proved last season he has the ability to play solid NT and will see time even if Hampton stays healthy. Keisel and Kirschke are solid. The Steelers DL should be good.

LB...Farrior, Foote, Porter, and Haggans are quite a good set of LBs. Watching Farrior last year, proved he now fully understands the system he plays in. It took a few years, but was worth the wait. Foote is probably the weakiest of the bunch, but seemed to understand his role. I look for him to improve some from last year, but not to a probowl level. Porter and Hagans should be able to give a good outside pass rush. James Harrison showed he is a quality backup. Alonzo Jackson, a tweener ..DE to OLB convert...will be given one more chance on the Steelers. If he does not have a good camp, he might not make the team; however, most of the Steelers tweeners have taken a few years to make the change. I have yet to give up on Jackson, and he could be a surprise. The Steelers have adequate depth and talent at LB.

S...Polamalu and Hope are young but played extremely well last season. I look for both to get better. McKeesport Mike Logan is coming off an injury, but should see some playing time. If he can over come the injury, he should be a good situational player. The Steeler are strong at safety, but young.

CB...Townsend had a good to great year, and should be solid. Williams did a fine job, but he is old. Colclough, 2nd yr, should see more playing time. Talyor needs to do something or he will be out. Rookie McFadden shold see some playing time, and reports from mini camp looked promising for him. He is a rookie CB, logically he will not see too much time other than the dime. The Steelers are decent at CB. They played well last season, but perhaps above their expected level. This could be do to the exceptional play of the front seven.

The Steelers have 7 starters who are entering the last year on their contract. CB Townsend, S Hope, DE von Oelhoffen, NT Hampton, WR Randle El, WR Ward, and TE Tuman. This may not be good for the Steelers long term, but this year, these guys will be playing for contract negotiations - a few looking for their first big contract.

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43 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by Starshatterer // Jun 27, 2005 - 9:44am

Sebastian (#40 )--

Nope, I'm a Patriots fan.

The teams aren't "tied" to last year's results -- but off-season analysis, if it ain't wishful thinking, starts with what they did last year and tries to figure out what will change.

And actually, my point was simply that the Steelers did very well last year, and the Bengals and Ravens were average and barley above, respectively. Even if the Steelers decline and both those teams improve, the decline and improvement would both have to be large (3+ games on each side) to make another team win the division.

Can the Steelers collapse? Sure. If their running game hinges on Staley staying healthy, they can start mailing it in now, because he only stays healthy when he's platooning anyway. Maybe Roethlisberger was just lucky, game after game, all last season. I wouldn't mortgage my house betting on a collapse, though.

Can the Ravens retake the division if the Steelers don't collapse? Maybe. If the 46 defense makes them the '85 Bears, or the addition of Mason and Clayton turns Kyle Boller into Peyton Manning. But the 46 doesn't have the same impact it once did, neither does Ray Lewis, both of them get far more ink than they actually deserve, and I suspect that Kyle Boller will still be Kyle Boller at the end of the season.

Bengals? If everything they need to improve, improves, they'll contend for the division. It happens from time to time, just not to the Bengals recently. If they have the usual run of setbacks for an NFL team, they'll improve enough to contend for a wild card.

Oh, and Basilicus (#41 )--
Pittsburgh won’t go 5-1 in the division like they did last year.

If the top three teams split their games, and each take two from the Browns, that's 4-2 already. Is it really that far-fetched to think that the Steelers can snatch one additional game?

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44 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by mawbrew // Jun 27, 2005 - 1:08pm

For all those folks chalking up W's next to the 'Cleveland' portion of the schedule a couple of points to consider.

1. The Browns beat both Cincy and Baltimore in their horrible 2004 season.

2. In their two game series with both Cincy and Baltimore in 2004, the Browns outscored both of them (when both games are combined).

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45 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by B // Jun 27, 2005 - 2:52pm

The game that Baltimore lost to Clevland was when Jamal Lewis was serving his suspension, right?

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46 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by mawbrew // Jun 27, 2005 - 4:24pm

Re: 45

No. Lewis played both games against Cleveland. In the Browns win, Lewis had less than 60 yards. In the Ravens win he had more yards but still a low average/carry. That was the game with the disputed non-call (Ray Lewis) for PI in the end zone right at the end (which Reed intercepted and returned for a meaningless TD).

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47 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by Reinhard // Jun 28, 2005 - 5:39am

46: yeah i remember that... trying to remember what the announcers were saying about Ray Lewis right then

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48 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by smashmouth football // Jun 28, 2005 - 11:07am

Re: 46, 47

I was at that game, sitting in the upper deck end zone right in front of the play. It was a very quick play and was the kind of call officials are generally reluctant to make. I honestly couldn't tell in a single real-time view if Ray got there early or not, and never saw the replays. But generally officials are reluctant to call close penalties or fouls near the end of a game. The old adage "Let 'em decide it on the field." applies here.

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49 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by smashmouth football // Jun 28, 2005 - 11:16am

The Ravens are foolish if they give big money to Jamal Lewis. I don't think the problem is character so much as wear and tear and poor pass blocking/receiving skills. Jamal Lewis is just not a complete running back in the mold of Priest Holmes or LaDanian Tomlinson. And adequate replacements are available cheap.

I think Steelers fans are a little too quick to extrapolate from their 15-win season last year. I recall the Steelers were 6-10 just the year before. Nobody was expecting a 15-win season, not even the most wild-eyed yellow towel wavers. The Steelers are a good football team, but my gut tells me they will experience a regression to the mean/Plexiglass phenomenon this year. Probably 11 wins, 12 tops. So I think the Ravens and the Bengals have a shot this year. As for the Browns, at least they have a good coach and GM, so they'll be a factor in another year or two.

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50 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by Derek // Jun 28, 2005 - 3:04pm

Baltimore has to be the slight favorite to win this division. Pittsburgh won't go 15-1 again, they've got nowhere to go but down from that, but they will still be a force, no doubt. However, Pittsburgh didn't make any improvements. They only lost players, some good, some bad.

The Ravens however added Samari Rolle (who will be their 2nd CB, and is better than most teams 1st CBs), Derrick Mason (a perennially undervalued 90 catch per season go to guy), and I can't remember his name, but they added a starting lineman from Pittsburgh's Offensive line if memory serves me right.

They've gotten better, significantly so, in particular at weak spots on their team. The still have the best defensive player in the league in Ed Reed, plenty of defensive stars. Basically, there is no reason to expect their defense to falter, in fact it should be better, and their offense gets back one of the league's best TEs in Heap this year. The only mark against this team is their QB.

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51 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by Luz // Jun 28, 2005 - 6:30pm

i don't buy that the ravens will be better because of the additions of rolle, mason and their rookie wr, who's name escapes me.

mason is definately an improvement but:

1. he's 31
2. he's in a new offense
3. those 90 catches he had last year were on a team that was usually down 30 pts. by halftime. i.e. a lot of catch up throwing and garbage stats.

there are similar potential problems for samari:

1. if rolle was such an upgrade why didn't baltimore pursue him until after gary baxter bolted for cleveland? obviously the ravens didn't view rolle as the best out there, he was their backup plan
2. rolle is also getting up there in age and is playing on a new defense.

it's always hard to predict how new players will transition with a new team and system. i think it's a pipe dream to assume you can just cut and paste their previous production with their old team to their new team. not to mention even if they live up to their prior production there is likely to be a learning curve as they adapt to a different system.

i also disagree that there is no reason to think the ravens defense won't be worse. they have new players at new positions and several players that have been in this league along time. they're installing a new defensive of system. it's hard to predict how well the system itself will work, let alone how the players will adapt to the system itself.

keep in mind big drop offs happen year to year in the nfl and usually nobody predicts what unit of what team will experience that fall off.

also while on the topic, what kind of depth do the ravens have on defense? keeping healthy is always a big factor in how a team/unit performs in the age of the salary cap.

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52 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by smashmouth football // Jun 29, 2005 - 1:51am

Re: 51
Mason put up those kinds of numbers over each of the last four years, several of which were for a playoff team/Super Bowl contender. So it's not unreasonable to think he can perform. The Ravens also get a healthy Todd Heap, who was sorely missed last year. The rookie wideout is Mark Clayton, pretty highly regarded. They also get a healthy Jamal Lewis. And despite the abuse he gets from a lot of posters on this board, Kyle Boller showed steady improvement last year and could play at a respectable level. The Ravens also improved their offensive line. So I don't think there's any doubt their offense will improve, perhaps substantially.

Their defense looks very good on paper, with pretty solid depth at DL and LB. Biggest depth problem on defense could be CB, where they are relying on Deion Sanders and Dale Carter at nickel and dime. Both players are well up in years and if either or both miss substantial time it could spell trouble.

I think they liked Baxter's ability to play safety and his solid run support. I think they lucked into Rolle after failing to sign Baxter. Rolle is a significant upgrade in pass coverage, but he is several years older than Baxter.

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53 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by mawbrew // Jun 29, 2005 - 11:06am

Re: 52

I didn't recall noticing the steady improvement you attribute to Boller last year so I looked at his stats. My rough cut on his QB rating in four game increments looks like this:

First four games - 76
Second four games - 64
Third four games - 75
Last four games - 75

While it's certainly possible Boller will pull a Brees and improve dramatically this year, I don't see a lot of growth during last season.

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54 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by Justin // Jun 29, 2005 - 6:41pm

I dont understand how the ravens end up the favorites to win the division every season. Also, If anyone makes another BOLD prediction on how the steelers are going to have a drop-off, I am going to break my keyboard. Of course they are not going to win 15 games again. Better coaching, better schemes will win the division for the steeler with about 11 wins.

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55 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by smashmouth football // Jun 29, 2005 - 8:34pm

Re: 53
Last year in November Boller lead the Ravens to a come-from-behind road victory against a very good NY Jets team. The following week at home he threw for 3 TDs against Dallas, and several weeks later in December he threw for 4 TDs against the NY Giants. He had mediocre-to-poor games against NE, Indy, and Pittsburgh. Still I think he was a better QB at the end of last season than when he started. I'm not saying he's as good as Peyton Manning or even Bighead Ben Roethlisberger. I'm just saying he's not as bad as posters on this board say, and he shows signs of improvement. So he might be good enough.

Re: 54
Eat a chill pill. The Steelers have been preseason favorites in this division (or its predecessor AFC Central) nearly every year since the Ravens moved to Baltimore. And for good reason, because they usually have won it. By the way, I'm not ready to write off your Steelers. I'm just saying I don't think it'll be a cakewalk this year. If I had to estimate probabilities of winning the AFC North right now, I'd say:
Steelers 40%
Ravens 35%
Bengals 25%
Browns 0%

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56 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by Justin // Jul 01, 2005 - 11:17am

Re: 55

The last couple of season, the major outlets like SI have had the Ravens as thier pick. Maybe we read different outlets. I am not sold on the Ravens D being the best defense in the division. Thier defense getting back on top by switching schemes. But you are right,this could be the year that thier offense starts picking up the slack. If Boller pulls a Brees, anything can happen

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57 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by smashmouth football // Jul 01, 2005 - 6:11pm

Re: 56
Justin, FO/DVOA said the Ravens had the best defense in the league in 2003, and the 2nd-best (and best in the AFC North) last year. So it's not absurd to think the Ravens D will be very good.

I think if you compare the 2003 Steelers to last year's team, there are two big differences: OL play and the emergence of Big Ben. And I think one reason Big Ben did so well was precisely because the OL was outstanding. And that leads me to my point--the biggest difference between the 2003 Steelers OL and the 2004 OL was injuries. Even a well-run team like the Steelers can't plug every hole.

A similar thing happened to the Ravens last year. They lost Todd Heap for most of the season, lost a worn-out Jamal Lewis for big stretches, lost Ogden several times, ...

Even NE would have been out of the Super Bowl picture if instead of losing half their defensive backfield they had lost, say, Tom Brady. Although it still amazes me they could cover such critical injuries. Even though I'm sick to death of the Belicheck worship that pervades this board, I have to grudgingly admit he's earned a lot of praise.

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58 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by tyler // Nov 28, 2005 - 9:32am

ravens suck there

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59 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by tyler // Nov 28, 2005 - 9:40am

ed reed is nothin who is good is sean taylor ray lewis is goodbut not better then brian urlacher

the redskins rock ravens suck

laVar Arrington is a beast so is marcus washington and portis, mark brunell is good jamal lewis needs 2 go back 2 jail

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