Friday, August 24, 2007

NFL SWOT Analysis: AFC North

Baltimore Ravens

Lewis (Photo Courtesy of

Strengths: On paper, the Ravens defense looks as good as, if not better than, their Super Bowl XXXV winning team. Although, Marvin Lewis is not at the helm of this defense, do not count out Rex Ryan (son of Buddy) who should land a head-coaching job next off-season. The talented defensive line is led by DE Trevor Pryce who does nothing short of dominate when he’s on the field. Underrated NT, Kelly Gregg and up-and-coming DE Haloti Ngata man the other spots. All are capable of tying up a couple of offensive linemen, freeing up their linebackers. Inside backers Ray Lewis and Bart Scott, one of the top tandems in the NFL, will take turns attacking the line of scrimmage, while Terrell Suggs and Jarrett Johnson put pressure from the outside. The starting defensive backfield could possibly be the best in the league. Corners Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle are still atop their game while safeties Ed Reed and Dawan Landry are coming off a great season together. On the offensive side, QB Steve McNair is in his second year with the team, and looks more comfortable. Running backs Willis McGahee and Mike Anderson will lead the charge as a 1-2 punch. TE Todd Heap continues to be one of the best in the league.

Weaknesses: The offense has been a difficult place for this team to build momentum. On paper, the offense has either remained the same, or decreased in talent, except arguably at running back. However, there is some potential. Depth becomes a concern in the defensive backfield. If McAlister or Rolle go down for any significant period, the team will be in dire straits.

Opportunities: Wide Receiver Mark Clayton could put the “3rd Year WR” rule in effect. If he can step up and be a go-to receiver for Steve McNair, the Ravens may not need to lean on the defense so much this season. Another WR ready to do big things is Demetrius Williams, who has looked impressive during camp and the preseason.

Threats: The offensive line has had a major overhaul in the last two years. Guards Jason Brown and Chris Chester have about one season worth of starting experience between the two of them. Right Tackle Adam Terry has two starts under his belt. Mike Flynn and Jonathan Ogden are the only starters with significant starting experience. Hopefully, Ogden is back soon. As good as supplemental draftee Jared Gaither has looked at Left Tackle, he does not have NFL regular season game experience.

Passing/Receiving the Torch: Bart Scott from Ray Lewis, tackling machine. Bart Scott is emerging as the do-it-all linebacker. While this may not happen right away, it is definitely in the cards. Scott has slimmed down and looks like he’s on the verge of making a name for himself.

Position Battle: At this point, there aren’t any major battles, as the starters are nearly set. If WR Demetrius Williams keeps up his strong play, he could challenge Mark Clayton. If Clayton also does well, they could cut into Derrick Mason’s time. When Dan Cody comes back from his injury, he could push Jarret Johnson at the OLB spot opposite Terrell Suggs.

Rookie Contributor: Left Tackle Jared Gaither will hold down the fort until Ogden is back, but keep an eye on LB Antwan Barnes. Barnes is a speedy LB who converted from a pass rushing DE. If Jason Brown or Chris Chester either falter, or one has to move to center, look for 1st rounder Ben Grubbs to make his debut. He is a road-grading run blocker.

Cincinnati Bengals

Palmer (Image Courtesy of

Strengths: The offense is loaded with talent at the skill positions. Once again, All-Pro QB Carson Palmer has his talented duo at WR, Chad Johnson and T.J. Hoozyadaddy *ahem* Houshmandzadeh, to throw the ball to. Behind him, he has the dependable Rudi Johnson, who has averaged 1400 yards per year for the last three seasons. The team also boasts a talented defensive backfield, loaded with young starts. First round picks in back to back years, Johnathan Joseph and Leon Joe, look like the next great tandem of corners in the league. They join the team’s #1 corner, Deltha O’Neal. At safety, Dexter Jackson joins 25 year-old Madieu Williams. Together, this unit could buy the defensive line that extra second or two to get to opposing QBs.

Weaknesses: Inside the offensive tackles, who are currently on the mend, the offensive line seriously lacks talent. They have players they can get by with, but they must gel as a unit if they plan to keep strong defensive lines off Palmer and Johnson. Not making things easier is the fact that Palmer has always lacked that safety-valve receiver. Rudi Johnson is not what you would consider a pass catcher. Reggie Kelly definitely is not one either. The team continues to leave this situation unaddressed. Third downs are much easier to convert when you have a dependable safety valve or two.

Opportunities: Ahmad Brooks has an excellent opportunity to make up for his name being sullied when he was dismissed from the University of Virginia. He has the middle all to himself, and has the talent to be one of the better MLBs in the game. He can also make this team forget about a once-promising Odell Thurman.

Threats: The front seven on defense will not scare anyone. The last thing a team needs is to face an offense that is confident that they will run all over you. On the defensive line, the Bengals have a mix of overachievers. While overachievers are nice to have, the nature of an overachiever is that occasionally they will play down to their level. Domata Peko was a nice surprise last year at DT, but if he comes back to earth, the remaining options are not good.

Passing/Receiving the Torch: Deltha O’Neal to Johnathan Joseph, as the #1 CB, eventually. Joseph had a strong year last season, starting nine games as a rookie. He broke up 20 passes in the process, which is no small feat. With a prototypical size/speed combination, Joseph will spend many years covering opposing teams’ top receivers.

Position Battle: A common place for position battles is the third WR position. This is very true of the Bengals. Right now, Tab Perry, Reggie McNeal and Antonio Chatman are the front-runners in the battle. Perry has been given every chance, but to come up with two catches after being targeted nine times in a preseason game is not going to sit well with coaches. The team is high on converted QB McNeal, but he is still working on the transition to wide receiver. Chatman could end up with another crack at the job that should have been his last season, but was lost due to injury.

Rookie Contributor: Unfortunately, the rookie who would have been the biggest contributor was lost for the season. Running Back Kenny Irons would have backed up Rudi Johnson and gotten most of the backup carries during the season. Cornerback Leon Hall will probably have the largest impact out of the rookies. He could end up being a starter by 2008. Keep an eye on Marvin White. He will be the first safety off the bench and has a lot of upside.

Cleveland Browns

Quinn (Photo Courtesy of

Strengths: Keep a close eye on this defense. We could be witness to Crennel building another Patriots defense. We see familiar faces like Ted Washington and Willie McGinest, and we see some relative unknowns that could have an impact. Two second-year players, OLB Kamerion Wimbley and ILB D’Qwell Jackson, lead a solid set of linebackers. Both were pleasant surprises last season. DEs Robaire Smith and Shaun Smith would be DTs anywhere else, which is perfect for Crennel’s 3-4 alignment. Safeties Sean Jones and Brodney Pool are coming into their own, and could allow Crennel to run more of a Cover-2 style in the defensive backfield. If Jamal Lewis and the line can stay healthy, this offense could have the surprise running game of the division. The team is also hoping that TE Kellen Winslow ramps up his progress and ends up in more highlight reels than motorcycle accidents (Note: PHSports does not condone mockery of motorized vehicle accidents)

Weaknesses: While the defense looks good overall, the CBs leave a lot to be desired. Leigh Bodden and Kenny Wright started nine games apiece last season due to injuries on the squad. Both are the starters now. At Wide Receiver, the team would like to move Joe Jurevicious to the slot position, where he has had success before. However, nobody is stepping up to replace him on the split side. Someone needs to stup up behind Jamal Lewis and be effective when giving him breaks.

Opportunities: Like Mark Clayton of the Ravens, WR Braylon Edwards is also subject to that “3rd Year WR” rule. He was decent, despite the QB issues the team had last year. If the QB position is solid throughout the year, Edwards could have a breakout season. He has all of the physical gifts necessary for him to catch everything thrown in his vicinity.

Threats: The offensive line definitely needs LG Eric Steinbach to have a full recovery from his knee ligament injury. He is the heart of that offensive line. A power passing team like the Colts could have their way with this defense. A healthy McGinnest will be needed to pull pressure away from Wimbley so he can rush the passer. Current starter, Antwan Peek will not be able to provide that for Wimbley.

Passing/Receiving the Torch: Brady Quinn is the future of this franchise, and the team must get him in there. At this point, he is the best QB on the roster. Charlie Frye is a decent option as a #2 QB, but he seems to have reached the limit of his potential. Derek Anderson and Ken Dorsey could fetch the team a late round draft pick for 2008 if they choose to trade one of them.

Position Battle: The battle of the Wright’s could easily go wrong. Do you take a relatively big and slow corner with experience and replace him with a slightly faster, slightly smaller inexperienced corner? The fact is that Eric Wright has much more upside than Kenny Wright has, but is probably more prone to making a mistake. If the team has bad record early, it would be wise to put the younger Wright in place and let him learn on the fly.

Rookie Contributor: Obviously, Brady Quinn will be a huge rookie contributor if he is starting. However, one cannot forget Offensive Left Tackle Joe Thomas is the highest rated offensive lineman to come out of the draft since Jordan Gross. He is the prototypical offensive lineman. He is huge and agile, and has great footwork. A strong pass blocker and a monster run blocker, he learned his trade on a Wisconsin team that likes to run. He will spearhead the running game with his partner in crime on the left side, Eric Steinbach.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Parker (Photo Courtesy of

Strengths: The Steelers can come at you with a power and finesse running game. Three power runners compliment the lightning that is Willie Parker. His near 1500 yards and 13 touchdowns brought him to the elite level of RBs in the league. Behind him are the crushing trio of Najeh Davenport and Verron Haynes. Together they will wear out defenses behind an offensive line that has the scariest duo of guards in the league, Alan Faneca and Kendall Simmons. Feeding off that running game will be Ben Roethlisburger, who took his bumps last year after a horrific motorcycle accident (see note from Cleveland SWOT Analysis). Big Ben still has the trusty WR Hines Ward and TE Heath Miller. Defensive Linemen Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton will clog off offenses, while allowing ILBs James Farrior and Larry Foote do their damage attacking the line. Troy Polamalu will do his usual patrolling of the defensive backfield, while taking on new responsibilities in coverage, as the safeties cover more in the Cover-2 defense.

Weaknesses: Gone are the days of the Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd, and the days of Jason Gildon and Joey Porter. Now it is Clark Haggans and James Harrison. Somehow, that does not strike fear in the hearts of offensive coordinators. The team drafted LBs Lawrence Timmons and Lamarr Woodley, but they probably will not win the starting jobs this year. As of now, Woodley will replace Clark Haggans on third downs.

Opportunities: Verron Haynes could see a lot of time on the field if he beats out Dan Kreider for the fullback job. Haynes also doubles as a ball carrier, which makes him more valuable than Kreider. If he wins the job, he could end up getting his fair share of goaline carries.

Threats: Many will have to remember that though this is a team, one Super Bowl removed from being the defending champions, they have many different cogs in place. At the top of all of that is new Head Coach Mike Tomlin. Tomlin could end up doing wonders for this team. However, will the change be too much? The team could have a tough transition from the traditional 3-4 defense to Cover-2

Passing/Receiving the Torch: Mike Tomlin will be at the forefront of the Pittsburgh media as he replaces a legend who replaced a legend. Many are looking for Tomlin to continue that trend and be a great coach for a long time. This torch passing carries a heavier load than any player position on the team.

Position Battle: Cornerback Deshea Townsend is fighting for his starting job against Bryant McFadden. McFadden fits the mold of a Cover-2 corner that Tomlin likes. Like Ike Taylor, McFadden has no problem coming up to the line and helping with the run. Townsend is more of a cover corner. Another battle will be at WR opposite Hines Ward, where Santonio Holmes holds off Cedrick Wilson, who has looked good during training camp and the preseason.

Rookie Contributor: OLB Lamarr Woodley will see the field as a 3rd down rusher, and hopes to be this year’s Mark Anderson (Bears). Lawrence Timmons may see the field more down the stretch of the season as injuries have slowed his progress this training camp and preseason. Keep an eye on DE Ryan McBean, as he reminds me a lot of current Steeler, Aaron Smith.

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