Thursday, September 10, 2009

Premature Evaluations 2009: AFC NORTH

Cincinnati Bengals

This could be the most disappointing year the Bengals ever have. No, last year officially doesn’t count. Ryan Fitzpatrick was never built to throw to an offense of high power receivers, and the Bengals didn’t have a ground game until Cedric Benson flew in to save the day (I’m really surprised word didn’t spellcheck that whole clause). The point is that this team is better than what you saw last year. Just how much better depends on how deep this aerial attack really is. Believe it or not, the Bengals finished in the top half of defensive rankings (12), and a young defensive core building around corner Leon Hall and stud MLB Keith Rivers should continue to improve. The offense, however, needs to show some variety now that Carson Palmer is back to prove that, for the second time, he’s not quite dead yet.

In that sense, losing TJ Houshmandzadeh, the team’s most reliable receiver, might be for the best. Housh was always a number one receiver thrust into the number two slot, which created problems for ball distribution and narrowed the offensive vision (Todd Haley deserves credit for avoiding this problem in Arizona). Meanwhile, his replacement, Laveranues Coles (who is a personal favorite), was born to be the best number two receiver in football (number one speed, number two size and durability, and the grit to make any catch on the field). Chris Henry’s redemption story could very well end with him being the most underrated red zone target in the AFC, and don’t forget the Bengals have Andre Caldwell (underrated speed), Jerome Simpson (like Ochocinco but taller and not crazy) and Chase Coffman (their first true pass catching TE) in development. With all of these targets, it’s up to the coaching staff to effectively use a diversity of targets and Palmer’s cannon of an arm to speed down the field, covering for a lackluster pass blocking line and opening up the middle of the field for Cedric Benson to take advantage. Will it happen? Probably not, but as the rare team with both the receiving targets and elite quarterback to execute a truly stunning pass attack, it would be a shame for us to let the Bengals off of the hook simply because they’re “cursed”.

Cleveland Browns

I’ve said pretty much all I wanted to say on the matter, but this “hidden quarterback” fiasco is just another example of the problem with head coach (and former bane of my existence) Eric Mangini: The identity of the coach should never overwhelm the identity of the team he coaches, but rather should be one of several influences. Mangini doesn’t want us to know the star under center because, to him, only one star really matters, and that’s Eric Mangini.

But still, boo to these guys for getting rid of Kellen Winslow.

Baltimore Ravens

Walk with me for a minute as I tell you why this is not the Ravens team you’ve come to know and be bored by. In his rookie year, on an offense that was unquestionably run-first, and with question marks at receiver and on his offensive line, Joe Flacco finished only seven QB rating points lower than the highly touted Matt Ryan (who throws to top tier receiver Roddy White), with a completion rating just one percent lower (despite attempting only six fewer passes) and a higher YPA average than Donovan McNabb. Fast forward, and Flacco is entering his second year with an undeniably creative offensive coordinator (Cam Cameron’s stint in Miami was unfairly brutal, despite his deserving some blame), a running back that seems poised to have a monster year, and an offensive lineman who may be the best in the draft in Michael Oher. Oh, and don’t forget that just because the Ravens didn’t let Flacco show off his monster skills last season, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t still have them.

PS: Derrick Mason (yawn) would like to remind you (snooze) that he’s possible the most underrated receiver in the league (snore).

All of this is to say that despite being stuck in a division with the league’s best or second best team of the past decade, the Ravens have never backed down as challengers and have as good a chance this year as any to finally beat the Steelers, not by beating them at their own game but by reinventing what we think of when we think of Baltimore. All these years I’ve been calling for the Ravens to FREE TROY SMITH, and that’s essentially been a plea for them to stop imitating the team they want to be and start embracing the equally tough, and perhaps more interesting, team that they could be by combining violence with a little bit of flash. Screw it; trade Troy to a team that will give him a fair shake. FREE JOE FLACCO.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Mike Tomlin is the new Bill Belichick. Inscrutable emotional palate (outside of being displeased)? Check. Brilliant, creative defensive schemes? Check. Willingness to trust his stars on offense to do their jobs without his interference? Check. Super Bowl ring by year two? You get the picture. Hell, in year two of his coaching career he managed to do what took Belichick five years as a head coach to accomplish, not to mention his predecessor, Bill Cowher, taking 13 years to do the same. Basically, Tomlin has constructed a defensive monster in which he can exchange players without great disturbance (remember Joey Porter? Neither does Tomlin), and yet he still has top tier talents playing for him (DE Aaron Smith is the best DE that never gets any press thanks to his 3-4 responsibilities). If all goes according to plan, Tomlin could not only mimick Belichick, but perhaps exceed the heights Darth Foxborough has reached.

But that forecast depends on Tomlin’s offense, as well as its famous, yet perhaps statistically underachieving, signal caller becoming the kind of well oiled machine that can compliment the defense by winning games on its own. The Steelers finished in the bottom half of the league in both passing and rushing yards per game, which simply won’t work in an AFC that welcomes back its offensive jewel (Brady) and may have found its prodigious aerial phenom of the future (Rivers). As such, Roethlisberger, Tomlin, and most importantly offensive coordinator Bruce Arians need to find a way to get their own offensive weapons (specifically Heath Miller, Santonio Holmes, and the underutilized Limas Sweed) involved on a consistent basis. Unlike other teams in their division, the Steelers seem to have found exactly who they need to be to win; now it’s just a matter of making sure their team as a whole allows them to achieve an identity so strongly based on one part of the game.

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