AFC North Preview

Joe Flacco and the Super Bowl champion Ravens will be looking to defend their title in a competitive AFC North.

Baltimore Ravens

The defending Superbowl Champions enter 2013 as an almost entirely different team.  Gone are familiar faces likes Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, who’ve been replaced with younger models.  One key player who remains is Joe Flacco, the QB who finally reached elite status last season and got paid because of it.   Recent veteran additions like Dallas Clark and Brandon Stokely may help fill the void of the departing talent but expect a significant Superbowl hangover this season. Glenn Coyle

John Harbaugh has one of his biggest coaching challenges this season with all the personnel losses.

Cincinnati Bengals

Under head coach Marvin Lewis, the Bengals have built themselves from the laughingstock to a respectable opponent in the NFL. Just 3 times over the last decade have the Bengals finished under .500. The Bengals think they have found their starting quarterback in Andy Dalton and with good reason.  Last season, he threw for more than 3,500 yards and 27 touchdowns.  He has a great target in A.J. Green, who has also been in the league just two seasons, yet has played great in that timeframe. He had 97 catches for 1,350 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2012 and made the Pro Bowl both seasons. Their other receivers are former Rutgers player Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones. At starting running back is the Law Firm, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who performed well for the Bengals last year and gave them a nice spark going into the playoffs. The problem with Green-Ellis is while he is a tough bulky player who is good for running between the tackles, he is not the quickest and the Bengals could use someone in that spot. That could be their second round draft pick from this year out of North Carolina, Giovani Bernard. The Bengals first round draft pick this season was Tyler Eifert, a tight end out of Notre Dame. He has a little bit of everything–athleticism, size, speed, etc. and him as well as former 1st round pick, Jermaine Gresham, could give some defenses a lot of problems and lastly, their offensive line is solid and potentially Pro-Bowl caliber. Cincinnati’s defense is one of the better units in the NFL. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins led the Bengals with 12.5 sacks and might be the best interior pass rushing lineman in the league. Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson are big and could cause problems for offenses at over 6’6 and 270 pounds each. They drafted Margus Hunt out of SMU who was a 2nd round pick and is 6’8 and 277 pounds.  At linebackers, James Harrison was signed in free agency by the Bengals away from their rival Pittsburgh Steelers. He can bring some veteran leadership and attitude to a young group. Rey Maualuga is the returning middle linebacker and while he can be inconsistent at times is definitely serviceable. Vontae Buflict led the team in tackles as a rookie and will also start in a 4-3 defense.  Their cornerbacks are Leon Hall and Terrance Newman, but last year’s first round draft selection, Dre Kirkpatrick has to continue to get better and try to compete for a starting spot, so he doesn’t look like a bust. Their free safety is Reggie Nelson and their strong safety is looking like the inconsistent Taylor Mays or rookie Shaun Williams out of Georgia. The Bengals have done a good job drafting and acquiring free agents over the last couple seasons so it is no surprise that they have finally become a competitive team with high expectations.  They are looking to take the next step forward and win a playoff game for the first time in over two decades. Expect big things this season from the Queen City. Just don’t expect them to be king. Dan Sohler

A.J. Green is one of the best receivers in football and a major target for Andy Dalton.

Cleveland Browns

The Browns can only go up from their 5-11 season in 2012. Trent Richardson will be the workhorse in the backfield after running for almost 1,000 yards in his rookie season. Brandon Weeden has a strong arm, but it doesn’t matter if he does not have time to throw. They have the Pro Bowler Joe Thomas but not much else in front of Weeden. Greg Little, Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron will all need to have to have big seasons in the passing game. Gordon had 800 yards last season and was a favorite target of Weeden. Defensively they don’t have many household names but are an above average group. Paul Kruger comes over from the Ravens and will be a force at linebacker. Joe Haden has the potential to be a shutdown corner and T.J. Ward is a decent safety in the secondary. Scott Boutcher

Richardson will be a workhorse for the Browns on the ground.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers had a very uncharacteristic 2012 season going 8-8 and missing the playoffs. Their offense is still explosive, but missing some pieces that were usual suspects. Mike Wallace left for Miami and will leave a void at receiver that Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown will have to fill. Rashard Mendenhall, who was limited the past few seasons, headed to Arizona and Isaac Redman and the rookie Le’Veon Bell will split the carries in the backfield. Their defense is still formidable but not as scary as it once was. Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood are forces up front and Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley are ball hawks at linebacker. The secondary has veterans, Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark who need to stay healthy. I don’t see them as a Super Bowl contender but should be a wild card contender. Scott Boutcher

The Steelers expect big things out of Le’Veon Bell in the backfield.

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