How Do The Other AFC North Teams Stack Up To The Steelers After The Off-Season

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:

Baltimore Ravens:
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.

Cincinnati Bengals:
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.

Cleveland Browns:
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

  • LouPGH

    Good article. I agree that Cincinnati actually scares me a bit more than Baltimore right now, although I don’t see them being particularly effective on the ground. Also, that assumes that they can fill the WR2 with talent. They could do worse than Shipley at WR3 (but our WR corp is better). Defensively I remember them being stout, but hopefully our improvements and better health on the line will make a noticeable difference.

    The thing about Baltimore is just how damned (a) effective they were against us, or (b) effective we made them look. (I can’t decide which it was, but it was on both sides of the ball.) They lost a lot of guys though, so I’m hoping the drop off in talent coupled with us getting healthy and better will change things.

  • Jprankster2005

    I think for the next 5 to 6 yrs. this will be a very strong division and it will be a dog fight to win it…… I actually miss the rivalry with the Browns and hopefully they can get better and give us better games…. But they still have about 2 to 3 yrs. of rebuilding to compete….. The Bengals look as good as the Ravens the only thing that will set us apart in being a better team is Big Ben I know Flacco beat us twice but he and dalton will never be elite…… Nor do I think they will ever win a Super Bowl and if they do it won’t be them that was the major piece of winning it…… If they had a Phillip Rivers either team, They would be Super Bowl contenders every yr. but those 2 QB’s just aren’t elite……. Like I said and still say with the 49ers u throw a Cutler or Rivers on there team they will be in the super bowl alot over the next few yrs…. Those 3 teams got all the other pieces except for the QB….. Alot of people talk trash on Ben…. When he’s gone I hope we can have a QB step in and be almost as good as him….. But if we don’t then everyone will realize what we had…….. There are only 6 elites in the leauge and everyone should know who they are…….. Brees,Brady,Big Ben, the Mannings and Rogers….. But there are those teams that u throw a QB that’s not elite but good like with the Ravens Bengals and 49ers watch out cuz they would be a big contender every yr…. That’s why I’m happy to have Ben hopefully until the day he retires…….. All Bullshit aside,

  • Callouswhisper

    Jah Reid is a good football player? Based on what? Sorry dont buy that at all, he was a 3rd round project at tackle who the Ravens due to a complete whiff in FA need to have fill LG. Believe me if Reid was a good football player Ravens would not have drafted Osemele. Without Grubbs last season the Ravens struggled mightly and hard as may be to fathom looked a worse oline than the Steelers.

    Bengals? The law firm is decent all round but he is not as good as Benson between the tackles. Benson was limited but he was big an physical and law firm is ok but no more than that. Bengals D does look good but one area they are very weak is Lber and safety. They can be had in middle of the field.

  • I want to pretty much echo this, Cincy is a lot more scary than BMore right now.

  • I agree that Baltimore will struggle to do what they did last season and that Cincinnati will be an improved team as will Cleveland. I will predict Steelers 13-3, loosing one game each to Bengals, Giants and the Ravens. Right behind them Bengals at 12-4, Baltimore 10-6 and Cleveland 7-9.

  • SteelersDepot

    Don’t see how there is enough evidence to say he isn’t either. He has yet to play 50 snaps in the NFL. Also I would take Green-Ellis over Benson all day long.

  • Jprankster2005

    I agree with u on the first one…… But u take Ellis over Benson all day long??? Benson is better than Mendenhall would u take Green-Ellis over Mendy??? Green-Ellis hasn’t done much at all because it’s been all passing in NE we will see what happens this yr. he will get beat up by bigger teams like the Ravens and Steelers…… Benson had 3 straight 1,000 yd. seasons…. and faced the Ravens and Steelers twice a yr. Ellis didn’t have those stats and played worse Defensive teams…… I’m just saying Green-Ellis might have more yrs. ahead of him and better attitiude but is not better than Benson if Benson is even 3/4 of what he’s been……

  • Callouswhisper

    So your argument is because he hasnt played much, you can say he is a good football player? Sorry you are going to have to explain that logic to me because that just flew right past my head.

  • SteelersDepot

    Nope not what I was saying at all. I am saying that it is hard to say WHAT type of player he is at this point, good or bad right now. 50 snaps in the NFL is not enough snaps to pass judgement on him either way.

  • Reader783

    @callouswhisper: I think you are overreacting. It’s not like they said he was the next Alan Faneca, they said he was a good football player, and that is probably based off the fact that he is in the NFL. Also, Green-Ellis is certainly at least the same talent-wise if not better than Benson and whenever you can replace a RB with a younger player, it can’t hurt

  • Benson may be a better runner. However with Benson in the game you knew that he was doing one of two things, either carrying the ball or being used for play-action. He had literally no blocking ability and couldn’t line up as a receiver or come out of the backfield to catch the football consistently. Neither he or Green-Ellis has any real kind of explosion but Green-Ellis can be a receiver/block and has never fumbled the ball in his career. He is a much better football player than Cedric Benson.

  • I called Jah Reid a good player based on what I saw of him in the pre-season last year, watched all four Ravens games, and the limited snaps he played in the regular season.

  • Callouswhisper

    Not overreacting and someone that plays well in pre-season doesnt qualify as a good player. You cannot label a player anything until they actually play meaninful snaps in real games. As it happens I also watched Reid and he was ok against mostly back ups and no more than that. He is way to upright imho to a be an OG. Additionally had Ravens believed he was future at guard then you dont spend a 2nd round pick on one.