Looking At The Steelers Main Competitors For The AFC North Crown (Part 1)

By Cian Fahey

After active off-seasons for each of the four AFC North teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers appear to be in good position to compete for another crown to add to the collection. What is less clear however, is which team the Steelers will need to overcome, or if there will be more than two competitors for the division this year.

Despite the Cleveland Browns addition of Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson, the loss of Phil Taylor will be too great for them to overcome this year. The Browns are the clear favorites to finish last in the division and it would be a major shock if they did anything else.

Outside of the Browns however, the Steelers play in one of the more talented divisions in football facing off against the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals. In this first article of a two part series, I will break down the Ravens\’ expectations for the coming seasons, with the second article concentrating on the Bengals.

Baltimore Ravens:

Last season: 12-4. first in the division.

Rankings: 12th in scoring offense. 3rd in scoring defense.

Head Coach and Notable Coaches: John Harbaugh, Cam Cameron, Dean Pees.

Cameron and Harbaugh carry over from last year, but Pees becomes the latest defensive coordinator in Maryland after Chuck Pagano became the head coach in Indianapolis. Generally the Ravens have no problems moving on from former defensive coordinators with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed providing enough leadership on the field to help any transition off of it.

Much like Keith Butler is expected to be in Pittsburgh, Pees was the linebackers coach for the Ravens before being promoted to defensive coordinator. Their track record may be stellar when changing coaches, but Pees has a lot of adversity to deal with on defense during his first year in charge.

There is little to say about Harbaugh and Cameron that has not already been said. It is a reluctant admission for most Steelers fans, but Harbaugh is a quality head coach. Cameron on the other hand is fortunate to still have a job with the Ravens but his flaws in play-calling may be covered by a better pass attack in Baltimore next year.

Offense:

Ray Rice is currently a holdout, but nobody expects that to last into the season. Rice will remain the focal point of the Ravens\’ offense and continue to be one of the most dangerous weapons in the NFL. He has lost one significant teammate this off-season though as Ben Grubbs is now plying his trade in New Orleans. Grubbs has been replaced by former Bengal Bobbie Williams with Jah Reid now playing right tackle while Michael Oher takes reps on the left side.

Ravens have a bulky issue in left tackle Bryant McKinnie because of those extra pounds he struggles with during the off-season. McKinnie got in shape last year after losing his job in Minnesota for being out of shape. His weight struggles may not be significant, but they are an issue for the Ravens to deal with. If McKinnie gets back in shape Reid very well could compete for the left guard spot with Williams with Oher moving back over to right tackle.

Even greater a worry was the decline in Matt Birk\’s play towards the end of last year. Birk remains at center this year. The Ravens won in spite of Birk in last season\’s playoffs, Williams isn\’t perfect either, but he is a big body that would suit the Ravens\’ rushing attack.

Vonta Leach also carries over from last year giving the Ravens\’ rushing attack the best fullback in the game and one of the best rushers.

The most significant difference between the Ravens of 2012 and 2011 will be their passing attack. Each year since being drafted Joe Flacco has carried more responsibility within the offense. Last year, he was a dropped pass away from bringing his team to the Super Bowl. Flacco is maturing into a decent quarterback, he is still some way behind Ben Roethlisberger, but the development is obvious to see.

Flacco\’s greatest handcuff may be his receivers however. Anquan Boldin\’s decline is as obvious as Flacco\’s rise. Torrey Smith had an excellent rookie season, but needs to prove that he can do more than just run deep. It may be a knock that he shares with Mike Wallace, but Wallace can afford to be a limited route runner because of the quality of receivers around him. Smith won\’t have that luxury playing with Boldin and the inconsistent Jacoby Jones.

Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson will be the Ravens\’ most important offensive pieces this year. The two tight ends showed promise last year, but will have to elevate their games to even greater levels if the Ravens offense is to crack the top 10.

Greatest effect on the Steelers\’ defense:

Presuming that he is fully healthy, Brett Keisel will be able to take advantage of Reid routinely. Reid is not really suited to play guard as he won\’t be able to move a bigger 3-4 end such as Keisel in the running game, while Keisel will be able to bull rush him in passing situations.

Larry Foote\’s insertion into the Steelers\’ lineup will make their coverage of tight ends better, not to mention the potential impact of Sean Spence. Dealing with Dickson and Pitta shouldn\’t be a problem for the Steelers\’ linebackers and safeties unless the Ravens\’ receiving corps really steps up.

With Keenan Lewis slated to start this year instead of the departed William Gay, the Ravens won\’t have the unique advantage that they had entering last year outside. Lewis is strong enough to stick with Boldin while Ike Taylor switches onto Torrey Smith, as he did during the second matchup of last season.

The biggest worry for the Steelers facing off against the Ravens next year will be in the running game. Rice is undoubtedly a star who the Steelers should respect, but his lack of interior offensive line strength will force him to run outside into the Steelers\’ outside linebackers.

Still, Rice is a game-changer.

Defense:

The biggest storyline of this off-season, at least in the AFC North, is undoubtedly the injury to last year\’s defensive player of the year Terrell Suggs. Suggs tore his Achilles tendon this off-season and is unlikely to play this year. Even if he does manage to get on the field, as he has declared he will on multiple occasions, Suggs\’ explosion will be limited because of the type of injury he has suffered. Without his explosion Suggs will likely be rendered largely ineffective.

Suggs isn\’t the only loss to the Ravens\’ front seven however. Starting outside linebacker Jarrett Johnson found a new home with the San Diego Chargers in free agency. Defensive linemen Cory Redding and Brandon McKinney joined Chuck Pagano in Indianapolis also. Redding\’s veteran presence will be missed as he was a starting defensive end, but McKinney is easily replaced.

Replacing those veterans are mostly unproven youngsters. Big things are expected from Pernell McPhee, Courtney Upshaw and Paul Kruger as they become starters for the Ravens. McPhee in particular has some scouts raving about his potential, but all his exposure to this point has been in limited action. It is a lot easier to prove yourself in limited action without dealing with the rigors of playing on every down.

Kruger, Upshaw and McPhee are all very good players, but incorporating them all into the front seven together at the same time may prove problematic. The Ravens\’ front seven has been very consistent over the years and they run as much four man fronts as they do three man fronts. It is unclear if they will be able to do that this year without Suggs.

The Ravens probably aren\’t too worried about their front however, as their starting secondary is arguably, along with the Seattle Seahawks, the best group (only considering the starting four players) in the NFL. Lardarius Webb was incredible last year, while Bernard Pollard and Reed perfectly complement each other\’s skill sets.

Jimmy Smith needs to step up across from Webb to allow this defense to reach its full potential. Smith is very talented, but the Ravens only landed him because of his questionable character. It will be interesting to see how he fairs next year.

Greatest effect on the Steelers\’ defense:

The Ravens\’ biggest strengths are their size upfront and their starting secondary. The Steelers should be able to expose the loss of Suggs by spreading the field and using their receiving depth to create mismatches. Cary Williams is a decent nickel defender, but Tom Zbikowski has also left to weaken the Ravens\’ options at safety in sub-packages.

Expect to see a lot of Jericho Cotchery, Emmanuel Sanders and Chris Rainey, be it in the backfield or split wide, when the Steelers face off against the Ravens. Players like Haloti Ngata and Lewis will continue to dominate the running game, but Kruger and  Upshaw will need to prove that they are adequate replacements for the departed linebackers.

The Ravens\’ defense may be a weakened unit, but they still have play makers and quality players. The Steelers\’ depth will decide if they can put points on the board or not. It may not be the hard hitting tight battles that the two teams have endured over the years, but that\’s not really the style of today\’s NFL. Or today\’s Steelers.

Stay tuned for the breakdown of the Bengals.

Follow Cian on Twitter @Cianaf

  • JAMESH

    Well done.

  • Callouswhisper

    Ravens signed Williams to play LG not RG (he lined up as 1st team LG during Mini camp). Yanda wont move anywhere. Reid was at RT during mini camp. The Raven oline is a chocolate mess. Mckinnie was ok for a while then as season wore on he began to really stink. Pro football focus had him rated as one of the worst starting LTs in the league. Oher wasnt much better (PFF had him 21st for RTs and 45th overall). Birk as you noted in ancient and has very balky knees. Yanda is the only sure thing on that line the rest is truly as big a mess as Steelers faced after week 1 humbling to Ravens.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_5XBK7SSKCWKZ7F6RTJCVHABVI4 Steve Duncan

    Nice writeup. Honestly, the Bengals scare me more than any other team in the AFCN this year.

  • JAMESH

    Me, too.

  • DoctorNoah

    Great article! Though the Ravens may be in decline, I wouldn’t start looking to Cincy as our new rivals for the throne just yet.

    Harbaugh and Tomlin are EXACTLY TIED for Winning Percentage in their careers (.688):
    http://espn.go.com/blog/afcnorth/post/_/id/50001/harbaugh-faces-biggest-coaching-challenge

    Pre-season contract dispute stuff is garbage most of the time. I put the Ray Rice garbage in the same bin as the Mike Wallace garbage.

    I would guess that the Baltimore media is similarly handicapping the Steelers based on the newness and unprovenness of our own O-line (while we’re blowing smoke up our own butts right now by saying how good it’s going to be to potentially start two rookies and move a tackle to a guard spot). And they are probably saying that our secondary is weak after the way it played in Denver, as Troy ages, and as we lost starters to FA and have largely unproven younguns’ to replace them. Keisel is great, but Hampton has an uncertain successor and the other side of the D-line has two players who have done fine but who are scarcely electric. With two great tight ends (who I think are both fast and considerably bigger than our inside linebackers) and a fear-inducing running attack, their big sets are going to be highly versatile and put a lot of strain on our defense.

    I just think that Harbaugh is a strong enough coach to weather the current storms in Maryland, just as Tomlin made everyone eat their “Steelers are too old” words with a 12-4 season. Ravens are still the team to beat.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_5XBK7SSKCWKZ7F6RTJCVHABVI4 Steve Duncan

    Surprisingly, even Hemsley over at the ESPN AFC North blog think Bmore will fall of. He has us going 11-5 and them going 9-7, same as the Bengals, I think.

  • JAMESH

    It doesn’t help our case to call Hemsley as a witness………….

  • Reader783

    I don’t know if you saw it, but last year Hemsley wrote a fairly anti-Steelers article, and after being called out on it, he has really shifted to a more neutral writer. In fact, he has almost become obsessed with the Steelers.

  • Reader783

    I agree. I don’t get how ESPN analysts who get paid money to analyze teams don’t see that the Ravens have had an awful offseason and lost keys on offense and defense, but didn’t really improve anywhere. They kinda just replaced what went missing in FA (except the OL) and didn’t improve anywhere they needed to and then lost Suggs.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/TIKQ435NPRRJR4FDYIHSKR26VA Larry

    WOW! I expected to see Steeler bias , but this is pathetic. Let’s forget that these pathetic lineman help Rice have 100+ games and protected Flacco on crucial game winning drives. Nice. How about the lost of Farrior. and Foote cover Pitta or Dickson, who besides a Steeler faithful would believe that? Hampton is OLD, Farrior, gone, Harrison old with back problems, and 2 rookie lineman facing Hgnata, Cody, Emotional leader Ward gone, Mendenhaul on the shelf. Who can challenge the Steelers? Yeah, Steeler nation in DENIAL.