Improvement name of game in AFC North

By Pat Kirwan NFL.com Senior Analyst

(July 2, 2004) -- The AFC North is another AFC division dominated by head coaches who are from the defensive side of the ball: Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati, Butch Davis in Cleveland and Bill Cowher in Pittsburgh. The irony of that phenomenon is the best defense in the division is in Baltimore, and they have the only offensive-minded coach in Brian Billick.

Don't get me wrong, Pittsburgh plays pretty good defense, and Cleveland and the Bengals would very much like to. But Baltimore won the division last year, and the most interesting thing about the Ravens besides great defense is that they were the only team in the NFL to rush for more yards than they passed for in 2003. In a league that sets up the run with the pass, that is very hard to do. The Ravens enter 2004 as the team to beat and they will not waver much from the philosophy that got them to the playoffs last year -- run the ball and play defense. They may want to take pressure off that formula with more passing but may not have the weapons to do so.

The AFC North has a few other distinctions that sets it apart from the rest of the NFL. It is the only division that didn't have a team with a winning road record (3-5 is the best anyone could muster away from home). The first team that figures out how to win five games on the road could be the 2004 champion. The AFC North also had the worst combined conference record with 21 wins and 27 losses. The ripple effect of that dubious honor is if the division champion is to get homefield advantage in the playoffs or to ever get a wild-card team into the playoffs, they are going to have to play better against AFC teams. Only Baltimore had a winning record in the conference at 7-5. Five AFC teams had better conference records.

The last point of distinction about the North is that it generated the least number of wins of any division in the NFL with 29. No other division in the NFL had under 30 combined wins. For example, the AFC East generated 36 wins, the AFC South 34 wins and the West 31 wins. The whole North division has to start winning more and it's safe to say 11 wins in 2004 by any of its teams pretty much guarantees the division title.

Five questions that are critical for this division in 2004 are:

Can Baltimore get to the Super Bowl without a passing game and can we expect to see an improved passing attack? Can Jeff Garcia save the Browns without a star receiver and an average running game? How long will it be before the Steelers put rookie first-round pick Ben Roethlisberger in at QB? Can the Bengals take the next step in the Marvin Lewis era while breaking in QB Carson Palmer? Besides Jamal Lewis in Baltimore, which running back will have the biggest impact: Duce Staley (Pittsburgh), Rudi Johnson (Cincinnati) or Lee Suggs (Cleveland)? So, what's in store for this year?

Baltimore

The first thing that impresses me about the Ravens is the number of quality players they have on their roster and quality people on their staff. Billick understands as well as any coach in the NFL how to coach in the salary-cap era. That is a fact that can't be understated. Director of player personnel Phil Savage has some track record of evaluating talent and getting the right players in April. Jonathan Ogden, Jamal Lewis, Ray Lewis, Peter Boulware, Chris McAlister, Ed Reed and Todd Heap are all home-grown players, to name a few. To have Jim Fassel, even if it's for one year, to help develop quarterback Kyle Boller is a brilliant move. The big question from other NFL front-office people is why not put a Kerry Collins on your roster when you had the chance? One AFC GM said, "If Collins had gone to Baltimore, they were hands down the favorite to go to the Super Bowl. Thank God they didn't do it."

The next issue the Ravens have to answer is what's going to happen if teams can shut their running game down? Tennessee was able to do just that in the playoffs, and in 2004 the Ravens play six games against top 10 run defenses. Hopefully for Baltimore, Fassel can get Boller to do more if the running game is held in check. It will not be easy to stop the ground attack of the Ravens because of one of the finest offensive lines in the NFL. The linemen are massive, athletic and can run block with an attitude. On the other side of the coin, the receivers will not scare too many teams. They didn't have a receiver in the top 20 in the AFC in receptions, they lost their case in getting Terrell Owens, and they replace the loss of Marcus Robinson and his 14.5 yards per catch with Kevin Johnson. Tight end Todd Heap is a fine player but he didn't score a touchdown in a divisional game last year and with the teams edging closer to the Ravens, he needs to find the end zone a few times.

They do lots of things well defensively. The offense can count on the defense getting the ball back for them at least 40 times, and when you consider the average NFL football game is about 12 possessions, the defense is giving the offense more than three extra games of offense -- usually on a short field. The problem is the offense surrendered the ball an AFC-high 38 times in 2003 and just about neutralized all the work the defense did. They weren't particular about how they lost the ball either -- 19 interceptions and 19 fumbles. I will be surprised if their giveaway problems aren't improved this season.

The Ravens play a 3-4 defense but it really doesn't matter what the scheme is as long as Ray Lewis is on the field. When you surround the best defensive player in the NFL with other stars like Baltimore does, you end up with the most efficient defense in the NFL. Moreover, they have the potential to be even better as Terrell Suggs improves as an every-down player, Gary Baxter gets more comfortable at cornerback and rookie second-round pick Dwan Edwards gets into the defensive line rotation. Legal issues hang over Jamal Lewis, and that can't help the situation. Boller only threw seven touchdowns last year and missed time due to injuries, so he still needs time to develop. The 2004 Ravens can win another 10 games but getting past the first round of the playoffs is still going to be a tough chore.

Cincinnati The Bengals were considered a success last year because Marvin Lewis, in his first season as head coach, got the team to an 8-8 record. When you consider they only generated 16 wins in the four previous seasons combined, it sure was a success.

Coach Lewis has to figure out how to start and finish better in 2004. Last season, the club started out 1-3 and finished up 1-3. In the middle of the season, they went 6-2 and at one point had a four-game winning streak. The midseason Bengals are what everyone expects to show up all year in 2004. Palmer takes over at quarterback for a couple of reasons. One, he was the first pick in the 2003 NFL Draft; two, the Bengals did not make the playoffs under Jon Kitna in 2003; and three, the offense only generated 24 points in the last two games of the season (both losses) when the team was in a position to make the postseason with an 8-6 record. The offensive weapons and a solid O-line will enable Palmer to grow quickly at the helm but it sure would be nice if the defense would develop at the same pace.

The Bengals defense could not stop too many people who wanted to run the ball. Cincinnati did not get the help it needed inside on the defensive line during free agency when it made a hard charge for Warren Sapp. Now, the Bengals count on a rookie and a second-year player with no experience to back up John Thornton and Tony Williams. Someway, somehow, the Bengals have got to find another defensive tackle before the season starts. Nate Webster takes over the middle linebacker position, enabling Kevin Hardy to get back outside where he belongs, and safety Kim Herring was brought in to replace the departed Mark Roman at safety and has the challenge of holding a unit together that was less than spectacular in 2003. What the secondary needs more than anything else is some more pass rush and sacks from the front four. The starting defensive ends, Duane Clemons and Justin Smith, had 11 sacks between them; Baltimore rookie Terrell Suggs had 12 by himself last year.

The good news is that the Bengals split with everyone in the division last year, even the Ravens, who they managed to beat 34-26 in October. The bad news is that in two games against Cincinnati, Jamal Lewis rushed for 281 yards on 49 carries and now Garcia takes over at quarterback for the Browns. The Bengals have work to do on defense.

When the Bengals do have the ball, I expect Rudi Johnson to do so well that he becomes a star in the league. When you realize Johnson didn't suit up for the first three games, split time in five other games with Corey Dillon and still managed to rush for 957 yards and nine touchdowns, it's not hard to project 1,200 yards rushing, 30 to 40 receptions for another 300 yards and 14 touchdowns.

When coach Lewis decides to throw the ball, he plays to his strong suit. Chad Johnson is a big-time player, Peter Warrick had a breakout season last year and caught 10 more passes in the divisional games (34) than Johnson did. The backup wide receivers are excellent and the tight end position will generate close to 60 receptions. The Bengals may start out slow in 2004 until Palmer gets a few games under his belt and the defense gels, but they will finish stronger than last year. Their biggest problem is their non-division road schedule, which includes stops in New York for the Jets, Tennessee, Washington, New England and Philadelphia. A schedule like that would test any team in the NFL. The Bengals may be a year away from the playoffs and will be a better team even if they have the same 8-8 record they had last year. It will not surprise me if Lewis squeezes a ninth win out of this group in 2004.

Cleveland

A year ago, we all thought the Browns were poised to take that next big step to the elite level. No such luck as disaster hit with a 5-11 record. After a season where in five games they managed seven points or less and four more games when they couldn't even generate 20 points a game, the team saw president Carmen Policy quit, consultant Ron Wolf get hired and then quit, vice president Lal Heneghan fired and former first-round selection Tim Couch let go. Now you have a team under a big microscope.

The only one left in Cleveland to put the microscope on is head coach Butch Davis. I never met a head coach who didn't expect or want the pressure squarely on his own shoulders, but this is some task without all the expert opinions that could have helped him turn things around in Cleveland. As one long time GM said to me, "Where are the NFL football people to help Davis?" Garcia should help put points on the board, but he can't afford to miss a game. Last year, he could only get on the field 13 times. He's 34 years old and slightly built. Garcia also heads into his first season without Terrell Owens, who was on the receiving end of close to 400 of Garcia's passes as a pro. Will he be the same quarterback with Quincy Morgan and Andre Davis at the other end of those throws? One thing's for sure -- Garcia will utilize the talents of rookie tight end Kellen Winslow if and when he finally gets to camp. A West Coast offense expert like Garcia knows how to use his tight end, and Winslow could easily find himself with 60 receptions and a half-dozen touchdowns.

As for the running game, William Green is still a mystery and Suggs' 26 carries for 186 yards in the final game of last season suggests there is hope for the 20th-ranked rushing team in 2003. Davis knows that to get to the playoffs, the road goes through Baltimore. Besides only scoring 13 points in two games against the Ravens, the Browns couldn't stop Jamal Lewis. The big back rushed 52 times for 500 yards and four touchdowns in the two Cleveland defeats. Cleveland opens up its season with the Ravens and we'll know quickly if the defense is any better with free-agent additions linebacker Warrick Holdman and defensive end Ebenezer Ekuban. The pass defense is better than the run defense and they do it without a lock-down cornerback, average safeties and inexperienced linebackers. The back seven was where the Browns staff did their best coaching in 2003, and they need a repeat performance in 2004.

Cleveland needs to stay healthy, do a better job winning at home, where it went 2-6 in front of the "Dawg Pound," and score points. That's a lot to accomplish. Most NFL insiders feel anything close to the 5-11 home record over the past two seasons could cause job security issues for the coach and his staff. A lot of people see the Browns winning no more than six or seven games, but I think the impact Winslow will have will be similar to the impact Shockey had on the Giants his rookie season, and that Garcia will make a difference. In three of those Browns losses when they didn't score over seven points, the opponents didn't score over 13 points either (6-9 to Indianapolis, 3-9 to New England and 6-13 to Pittsburgh). The Browns will climb back to 8-8.

Pittsburgh

The Steelers are a case of perception and reality. Most NFL fans think of the Steelers as a good football team that makes the playoffs every year, runs the ball well and makes few mistakes. Last year, the Steelers won six games, weren't close to the playoffs, were minus-3 in turnover ratio, committed 11 penalties a game and was second to last in the NFL rushing the ball. There is work to be done in Pittsburgh.

The good news is back in 1999, they won just six games only to go on and win 32 games over the next three seasons (9, 13, 10) before the collapse of 2003. Bill Cowher has a history of turning things around and that's why he enters his 13th season as the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The addition of Staley should put a 1,000-yard runner back on the field. He only ran the ball 96 times for 463 yards last year with the Eagles but with 200-plus carries in 2004, he will be back to his 2002 form assuming the offensive line can stay healthy. People around the league know health was the big problem last year for Pittsburgh; how else can you explain Mike Mularkey going from Steelers offensive coordinator to Buffalo head coach with the 22nd-ranked offense in total yards?

The Steelers have an eye on the future with the drafting of Roethlisberger in the first round. The Steelers didn't have to move at all in the draft and their perfect guy dropped right to them. The question is how long before Roethlisberger takes the field in Pittsburgh? If things go well, he gets to sit a year like Palmer did in Cincinnati. With Tommy Maddox getting a pay raise and a contract extension for past performances, the Steelers are built to do it the same way the Bengals did. And with Staley behind him, a couple of very good receivers and some time to throw, Maddox will do just fine. If the season slips away quickly like it did last year, we could see Roethlisberger get some game experience.

Defense is still the Steelers' pride and joy, finishing up 2003 in the top 10 in the NFL in total defense. The unit plays a 3-4 package and expects great pass-rush pressure from its outside linebackers. Jason Gildon (six sacks) was released and has lost a step, but his 60 sacks over the past six seasons need to be replaced. Joey Porter (five sacks) and Clark Haggans need to deliver. The secondary lost Brent Alexander and DeWayne Washington, but the Steelers feel they are better, which I agree with. Look for rookie cornerback Ricardo Colclough to be in the mix to start by midseason.

Then there's wide receiver Plaxico Burress, who is complaining about his contract, and the loss of former offensive coordinator Mularkey, who will be missed. Maddox is an average player and the Bengals are getting better, which spells a .500 season for the Steelers. The good news is Pittsburgh plays the Ravens as tough as anyone in the NFL, kept Jamal Lewis to 183 yards in two games (91.5 per) and will not be the 31st-ranked rushing offense again. Eleven times last year, the Steelers could only generate 20 or fewer points; this year they cut that number in half and get back to a game over .500 like they did in 2000, which is when they came off a six-win season in 1999.

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