By Cian Fahey
Now that the 2012 NFL draft is over, the curtain has fallen on the final major event of this year\’s off-season. Between now and the beginning of training camp very few alterations will be made to team\’s rosters save for a few free agent signings and perhaps trades.
Not only is the NFL as a whole taking shape for this year, but so is each conference, each division and each roster. While the Steelers have done excellently this year to put themselves in the position to challenge for this year\’s Super Bowl, the moves made within their division will be just as important to defining their regular season record.
As such, it is important to take a look at what the Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens have done this off-season:
It has been an off-season of negatives for the Ravens so far. Running Ray Rice from Rutgers remains unsigned, while his old blocking teammate Ben Grubbs has found a new home in New Orleans with the Saints.
There is no doubt that Joe Flacco took a huge step in his career last year with his undeniably impressive performances, not only against the Steelers but also in the playoffs, however this offense remains dependent on Rice. Losing Grubbs is a bigger issue than you would first think. Marshal Yanda is an outstanding guard already on the roster, but Matt Birk showed his age last year while Bryant McKinnie is again struggling with his weight this off-season.
Grubbs is expected to be replaced by Jah Reid, a second year player who was drafted as a tackle. Reid is a good football player, but he doesn\’t fit the mauling role of an offensive guard. Couple his insertion into the offense and Flacco\’s improvements last year, with the defense\’s suffering this off-season and the Ravens will be a very different team next year.
Terrell Suggs suffered a torn Achilles in recently while Jarrett Johnson already left to sign with the San Diego Chargers. Reliable defensive end Cory Redding had already gone to the Indianapolis Colts while Ray Lewis adds another year to the tires. With the Steelers\’ improved offensive line, and the Ravens relying on unproven pass rushers, the Ravens will struggle to disrupt the Steelers\’ offense next year. Courtney Upshaw is a fine football player but not a dominant pass rusher while Pernell McPhee showed a lot in limited action last year and Sergio Kindle\’s struggles since being drafted are well documented.
Because the Steelers are built to deal with the passing attack of Baltimore next year, with a depth of cornerbacks now on the roster, there may be a greater gap between the teams this year than at any other time in the past decade or so.
Undoubtedly, the Bengals had a great off-season. After competing well with the Steelers last year in Cincinnati before faltering mightily without A.J. Green in Pittsburgh, the Bengals could prove to be the Steelers\’ biggest rival for the AFC North crown this year.
In order to protect Andy Dalton from a second year slump, the Bengals have diversified their offense with improvements to the running game. Gone is the limited Cedric Benson to be replaced by BenJarvus Green-Ellis. While Green-Ellis is not exactly Reggie Bush, he is an improvement over Benson as an all-around football player while the addition of Kevin Zeitler and Travelle Wharton give the Bengals a strong all-around offensive line compared to last year.
The Steelers excel at taking away the strongest part of a team\’s offense. It will be difficult to determine what is the best part of the Bengals offense next year. While Green is obviously their biggest play-maker, adding Mohamed Sanu and the return of Jordan Shipley gives them a diverse group of receivers capable of winning games to go along with what should be a strong running game. What the Steelers may actually need to focus on next year with the Bengals is the tight end position.
The Bengals offense looks to be in a similar style as the New England Patriots as far as ideology. After adding Orson Charles this off-season, the Bengals have two tight ends who they will hope to use like the Patriots use Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. While they obviously aren\’t as talented as those two, their impact schematically on the Steelers could be major. If Charles proves himself to be a capable receiver, the Steelers will have a tough time setting up to stop Green.
Defensively the Bengals brought in veteran leadership in free agency as well as an abundance of talent through the draft. Their secondary is deep and the return of Leon Hall gives them a star cornerback to try to combat the Steelers\’ receiving corp. Nate Clements, Dre Kirkpatrick, Terrence Newman, Jason Allen and George Iloka may not scare you as starters, but when moved down the depth chart their value to Mike Zimmer\’s overall defense is expanded.
Brandon Thompson could be the wildcard in this defense as far as the Steelers go. Thompson is a huge body, who along with Devon Still, could really test the Steelers\’ interior protection next year. David DeCastro may be a star, but he is still a new piece who needs to adjust to the pro game and his new teammates while Maurkice Pouncey is coming off off-season surgery and Ramon Foster has never excelled at handling size being a former tackle.
The Browns biggest moves came in the draft with the additions of Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson. Richardson has the biggest affect on the Steelers\’ this year because he finally gives the Browns\’ offense a piece which will force Dick LeBeau to gameplan to take away.
In recent years the Browns offense was so dysfunctional that the Steelers\’ defense could, for the most part, focus on playing their own game. However, once an elite talent lines up across from Lebeau\’s defense, he will always look to take that talent away. This year you can expect LeBeau to focus on limiting Richardson which will significantly alter their approach to the game.
A strong runner like Richardson could really cause the Steelers some problems depending on Casey Hampton\’s abilities for the coming season. The Steelers\’ run defense should be very strong again next year, but there is undoubtedly an unproven element to it. The same can be applied to Richardson, however Richardson would have to struggle significantly not to change the identity of the Browns\’ offense.
Fortunately for the Steelers, both Browns games come in the second half of the season. This gives Hampton as much time as possible to return to full healthy while Richardson will likely be wearing down at that point like most rookies do.
Weeden won\’t have a major impact.
Follow Cian on Twitter at @Cianaf