The AFC North was once considered one of the toughest divisions in football, even when it was just the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers throwing haymakers at each other two the three times per season.
Even with the Ravens winning the Super Bowl two seasons ago, however, the division as a whole hasn’t been very impressive in recent years. The Cincinnati Bengals have made strides in recent years, but they remains 0-3 in the playoffs with Andy Dalton at quarterback.
The Cleveland Browns haven’t come close to a winning season in a while now, and don’t necessarily appear to be poised to break that streak any time soon.
So what exactly have these teams been up to this offseason to help improve the division’s fortunes for 2014? Marc Sessler has a training camp preview up, detailing the three main story lines for each team in the division heading into September.
If you’re reading this article, you’re probably a follower of this site, and thus are already well aware of what the Steelers have been doing, so we can safely move on to their competitors.
Starting with the Ravens, they retain just two players on defense from their Super Bowl season of two years ago. Like the Steelers, they expect to start a rookie at inside linebacker in C.J. Mosley, while they plan to move last year’s first-rounder, Matt Elam, to his natural position of strong safety.
New offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak is expected to install more of a short passing game with Steve Smith and Dennis Pitta, while the running game could get a jolt from more zone running. A possible suspension for Ray Rice could be a setback, though.
The Bengals, meanwhile, plan to run the ball with their two young running backs drafted in the past two seasons, with rookie Jeremy Hill doing much of the pounding and grinding and Giovani Bernard being more agile. Hue Jackson reportedly has had them on the field at the same time on occasion.
Jackson’s offense is also expected to take some of the pressure off of Dalton, who tends to receive most of the blame for the Bengals’ inability to get over their playoff hurdle. They’ve been there in each of his three seasons, but haven’t cracked the win column yet.
Meanwhile, the defense will have a new defensive coordinator after Mike Zimmer took a head coaching job. He has been widely credited for the success they’ve had in the last few years. The Bengals have stockpiled some talent on that side of the ball, however.
Of course, the Browns rebooted just about their entire organization short of the owner this year. They drafted quarterback Johnny Manziel, though as of now Brian Hoyer is expected to start at quarterback.
Like the Bengals, the Browns are hoping to grind out a lot of yards on the ground. They signed running back Ben Tate in free agency and drafted Terrance West, both of whom are expected to carry the load this year.
New head coach Mike Pettine comes in with a defensive pedigree, and the hope is that he will help get that unit to finally play up to its potential. With two first-round cornerbacks and high-pedigreed pass rushers, the pieces seem to be in place.