Our next stop on the training camp divisional tour is the AFC North. This has perennially been a division that produces one of the two AFC wild card berths, because of its fierce competition, particularly between Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Cincinnati has been known to sneak into the playoffs, particularly last year as the AFC #6 seed, and head coach Marvin Lewis has done just enough to remain with the Bengals year after year. (Trivia: After Andy Reid in Philly and Bill Belichick in New England, Lewis – who has delivered a mere three playoff appearances in nine seasons – is the third-longest-tenured head coach in the NFL.) Then there’s Cleveland, who’ve already announced that rookie Brandon Weeden will start at quarterback Week One.
The AFC North’s inter-division schedule is always tough, and this season they also play the AFC West, a weaker division, and the NFC East, a stronger one. Here are the top five questions concerning the Ravens, Bengals, Browns and Steelers in their 2012 training camps.
5. Will Marvin Lewis’s Twitter ban for Bengals’ training camp extend into the regular season, and will it set a new trend in the league?
If you have stripes on your helmet, your social media privileges are pretty restricted this summer. Cincinnati Bengals players are not allowed to use Twitter during training camp this year. Rookie cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick tweeted a few weeks ago that he had sustained a leg injury, which upset Lewis. He consulted with team leaders before instituting the ban. “I don’t see how tweeting is going to help us win a football game,” he remarked. He said he would consult again with team leaders before deciding when the ban was up, so Cincy players may just be better off deleting their accounts altogether. I can see the ban being extended, but I just don’t see other coaches following suit. Tweeting may not help win football games, but it’s rarely going to help the other team beat you, if players keep their wits about them before hitting send. (That’s the key, right there.)
4. How will rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden fare as Cleveland’s starter?
The twenty-eight-year-old virgin? Brandon Weeden’s collegiate and professional football career was postponed by baseball: a pitcher, he was drafted by the Yankees in 2002 and bounced around the minor leagues before quitting in 2006 to attend Oklahoma State and play quarterback there. As a result, Weeden will be 28 on Opening Weekend, and turn 29 during their Week 6 matchup with Cincinnati. Weeden was named the Week One starter over incumbent Colt McCoy, which is funny to me because McCoy is both more experienced and younger than Weeden. The 25-year-old McCoy is entering his third season in the league, but his Browns went 4-12 last year, 4-9 when he was a starter, and only beat bad teams like Jacksonville and Indianapolis. The Browns don’t benefit from an easy out-of-division schedule this year, drawing teams like the Giants rather than the Jaguars, so it will be baptism-by-fire for Weeden. The Browns’ top two receivers on the depth chart are named Greg Little and Mohammed Massaquoi and their only offensive threat is rookie running back Trent Richardson, so don’t expect Weeden to put up Andy Dalton-like numbers in his rookie year.
3. Will the Bengals make more strides forward this year, or will QB Andy Dalton and WR A.J. Green have sophomore slumps?
Speaking of whom! Dalton had 3,398 passing yards and 20 touchdowns as opposed to just 13 interceptions – not a bad rookie campaign at all. Similarly, A.J. Green racked up 1,057 passing yards and caught seven touchdowns. However, Green and Jerome Simpson were the only two wideouts two have more than 350 receiving yards for the Bengals last year. It helps to have tight end Jermaine Gresham (596 yards, 6 TDs), but they need more depth in the receiving corps. Cincinnati plans to start Brandon Tate, who served last year only as a kick and punt returner and caught zero passes, as their WR1, with Green at WR2. To add to the questions, Cedric Benson is gone, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis is in to share carries with Bernard Scott, probably putting more pressure on Dalton and the passing game. Cincinnati isn’t going to surprise anyone this year, and with a tough schedule, in the division and outside it, a winning record may be out of reach.
2. Whose defense will play better this year, Baltimore’s or Pittsburgh’s?
Rather than doing one Ravens-specific and one Steelers-specific question, I chose to make the two most important questions both involve the competition between the two teams, because in recent history there hasn’t been a better NFL rivalry, in terms of both entertainment and consistency. Since 2008, these two teams have either had the same record or been separated by one game, and either team has won the AFC North every year except 2009. To the question at hand: Both of these defenses were excellent last year, as usual, but both have questions to face. More than half of Pittsburgh’s starting defense is thirty years or older. James Harrison, 34, dealt with back and eye injuries last year and now has a bad knee coming into camp. Meanwhile, Ravens star linebacker Terrell Suggs will miss much of the regular season with an Achilles tendon he tore in a conditioning drill in the offseason. The Ravens will miss Suggs, who has 82.5 career sacks in nine years, all in Baltimore, but losing him is not the same as losing Ray Lewis or Ed Reed. Additionally, the Ravens are a much younger defense, and their selection of linebacker Courtney Upshaw in the early second round might have been the steal of the draft. Meanwhile, the Steelers don’t have younger stars that can play like a healthy Harrison waiting in the wings. Pittsburgh has much more to worry about defensively than their rivals.
1. How close will the annual division dogfight between Baltimore and Pittsburgh be this year?
Not as close as you think. Consider all the question marks Pittsburgh has, besides the aforementioned aging defense: GM Kevin Colbert said he’d be “surprised” if starting running back Rashard Mendenhall doesn’t start the season on the physically-unable-to-perform list; his still-healing ACL will likely force him to miss the first six games of the year. Nobody knows what will happen with the Mike Wallace contract dispute. Plus, the Steelers have a new offensive coordinator, former Chiefs head coach Todd Haley. Ben Roethlisberger is trying to quell the rumors that he and Haley are still not getting along, after their initial awkwardness, chilliness, whatever you want to call it, but it’s nonetheless a big transition. Plus, Haley couldn’t get much out of a talented Chiefs team. I’m not saying Pittsburgh isn’t a playoff team still, but Baltimore is a much more established, much less questionable power at this point. The Ravens are easy choices for the AFC North title, not to mention a very vigorous Super Bowl run.