I hate to say it, but here comes the real preview. With neither the Browns nor Bengals expected to be in playoff contention this season, all AFC North eyes will be on the two heavyweights of the division: The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens.
What more can be said? These two teams have given fans some of the best football moments and games in the last few years. The pre game trash talk, the in game heat, controversy and heart attacks aplenty.
Check this: Over the last five years the Baltimore Ravens have gone 50-30 in the regular season. The Steelers have gone 51-29. Almost inseparable. The difference has been the playoffs. Despite one more playoff appearance (4) in the last five years than the Steelers (3), the Ravens have only mustered a 4-4 record, whereas the Steelers have managed a 6-2 record including 2 Superbowl appearances and one Championship.
Could this be the year the Ravens come out on top? Or will the Steelers again find a way to spoil their favorite rivals glory?
Strap yourself in, Part two starts now.
The Baltimore Ravens steamrolled their way to a 12-4 record in 2010, including a 4-2 record against the AFC North, however were unable to win the division due to the Steelers superior 5-1 record, and for the third year in a row they made the playoffs as a wildcard entry.
After demolishing the AFC West champion Kansas City Chiefs in the Wildcard round, they set themselves up for a Divisional round clash against the rival Pittsburgh Steelers. After dominating much of the first half, the Ravens headed to the sheds with a 21-7 halftime lead, and it looked for all certainty that they might finally knock their rivals off. Not so fast. One of the most bizarre and embarassing collapses in recent memory ensued, featuring fumbles, interceptions, and penalties, and the Steelers walked out of the building 31-24 victors, and the Ravens left thinking "what the hell just happened?"
Out with the Old:
Derrick Mason departs the team as it appears the Ravens decided they were ready to move forward without him. Surprising really to this fan as Mason was their most consistent receiver, and was not one of the two who let the team down in the playoffs with crucial drops. Mason departs the franchises leader in recepetions (471) and yardage (5777).
Speaking of crucial drops, T.J Houshmanzadeh also departs Baltimore after a lackluster season, despite catching the winning grab against the Roethlisberger - less Steelers in Week 4, his lasting image of his Baltimore career will be the 4th & 18 drop against the Steelers in the Divisional Round of the playoffs which completed the Ravens historic collapse, exiting the playoffs early for the 3rd year in a row. The Ravens opted to get younger at the receiver position, and Housh was surplus to requirements.
On defense, the Ravens let former starting NT Kelly Gregg move on to other pastures (Chiefs) as well as CB Josh Wilson, who played pretty solid last season once they traded for him, leaving a question mark over the cornerback position. To a Steeler fan, his exit was welcomed albeit surprising.
In with the New:
Mason and Housh leaving signals a revamping of the Ravens Wide Receiver core. Young and fresh blood was much needed to a group that had under-performed on lofty expectations. Anquan Boldin remains and now seems to be the #1 option. The Ravens traded for former Bills speedster Lee Evans, who brings a deep threat element that the Ravens have not had for quite some time. Evans has already shown flashes in the preseason, and still remains one of the better deep threats in the league, although there are questions over whether or not he has passed his prime.
Joining him in the revamped receiving core is rookie 2nd rounder Torrey Smith, from local Maryland. The former Terp "slipped" in the draft, after being touted as a potential 1st round pick, he fell all the way to Baltimore in the 2nd. Hopes are high for the local product, who shows great speed and is a fluid runner, however it will take time for him to understand the more complex zone techniques used by Defensive Coordinators. Did not make a lot of noise in pre season, but will look to be a bigger impact in the regular. Likewise 4th round rookie Tandon Doss has also showed flashes of potential and will look to contribute as best he can.
The Ravens also shored up their weakened Offensive Line by adding veteran LT Bryant McKinnie and multiple pro bowl C Andre Gurode. McKinnie showe up to the Vikings overweight and was cut, and Gurode was an apparent "cap casualty" in Dallas, however talk to many a Cowboy fan and they will say Gurode has been overrated for some time now and are happy to see him gone. With a short time to get in tune with the other offensive lineman, this will likely a key area to highlight early in the season, to see just how in shape the two of them are.
All eyes on me:
Anquan Boldin was for many reasons, a little disappointing in his debut season as a Raven. A lot was made of the trade to receive Boldin from the Cardinals, and I think overall whilst being solid, he did not make the impact many thought he would in the purple jersey. He had a few big games for the Ravens, and fans loved his physical style, however he seemed to disappear in big moments and failed to be the clutch receiver he was in Arizona. No one play speaks more volume than his endzone drop in the Divisional playoff loss to the Steelers.
However, with the departure of Mason, Boldin now looks to be Joe Flacco's main target in the passing game unless someone else emerges, so it could be a safe bet to say Boldin improves on the 64 catch, 800 yard season he posted last year. Is he a true #1 receiver? Or was he just taking advantage of the opportunities he had opposite Larry Fitzgerald. Time will tell, but many an eye will be watching.
Sink or Swim:
Joe Flacco again has a lot of critiquing eyes firmly locked on him. Flacco boasts an impressive record in his first three years, leading the Ravens to the postseason in each of those, however he has failed to show that he can beat the Steelers, as the Black and Gold have booted him from the season 2 of the last 3 years. Is this the year he can finally stand up and be a big game Quarterback, putting the team on his back and out duel other top QB's in the clutch, or will he again sink to mediocrity in game on the line situations?
The Ravens have done their best to give him a better variety of weapons in the passing game, now it is up to him to utilize them to their full potential. Joe Flacco is in no way in danger of losing his starting position, he is still the best Quarterback the Ravens have had for a long time, the Baltimore faithful are now getting impatient. Could a losing or non-playoff season put Flacco on the trading block at seasons end? It really is now or never for the young Quarterback as he enters his 4th year, and many expect him to make that leap from better-than-good to great QB this season.
Baltimore have an easy schedule, and it is very hard to envision them with anything less than 10 wins this season. The real question is, do they have the heavyweight ability to get in the ring with the big boys in the AFC. Without adding in Steeler bias, I am less impressed with their chances this year than I was at the beginning of last year. Change is not always a good thing, and the changes the Ravens have made, particularly on the offensive line, have left me wondering if this will simply be a 1-and-done season in the playoffs once more. Time will tell, and we wont have to wait long to find out if the Ravens have what it takes.
11-5, with a wildcard berth, and subsequent wildcard round exit in the playoffs.
The Steelers were wrote off by most, being touted as 3rd in the AFC North much due to the Big Ben suspension. Well the Steelers responded as they always do to doubters, instead they went 30 seconds from being 4-0 without Big Ben, and then continued to storm towards a very impressive 12-4 season, culminating in their 2nd division title in 3 years. After their first round bye, they stunned the Ravens in the divisional round with a 31-24 decider, outscoring the Ravens 17-3 after halftime. They then gave the Jets their second consecutive AFC championship loss, earning their second Superbowl berth in three years. Unfortunately, this time it was not to be their day, as the Green Bay Packers emerged victorious after one of those famed Big Ben game winning drives finally fell short. An outstanding season by all accounts, but a painful end.
Out with the Old:
As per the usual, not a hell of a lot changes with the Steelers in the offseason. Consistency is stability.
Max Starks' Steeler tenure appears to finally be over. The versatile former third round offensive tackle was injured for the majority of last season, and signalled his own end by showing up to camp tremendously overweight and out of football playing shape (reportedly over 400lbs). Max Starks was also very solid, kind of a jack of all trades, master of none type of player, however he did start on the Offensive Line of two Superbowl winning teams, so he deserves some credit for his contributions here. Injuries to starters could signal a return to the Steelers, otherwise, they are looking forward without him.
Likewise, Flozell Adams was an interesting addition to last years squad, as many were not sure what to expect from him. Willie Colon's return to shape combined with Adams' reluctance to take a pay cut to stay on the team signalled his end after 1 season in Black and Gold. Flozell was a solid contributor at RT, paving way for a solid run game by Mendenhall, and by all accounts was a very respected and hard working team member. It will be interesting to see if he is picked up elsewhere or if he returns to the Steelers due to injury.
In with the New:
The Steelers are returning 20 of 22 starters from the team that contested for the Superbowl title last season, so there is not a lot of new to talk about. However like always, a couple key draft picks and the odd veteran pickup look to boost out team.
Jerricho Cotchery surprised many when he was invited to a workout with the Steelers midway through the offseason. Many (including myself) saw the team stacked at Wide Receiver with Wallace, Ward, Sanders, Brown not leaving much room for other contributors. However, the injury to Sanders opened the door for a training camp and preseason tryout for "Cotch" and he made it count. Impressing the Steelers brass with a high work ethic, leadership and steady hands, he played his way onto the team. Cotchery is as sure handed as they come, and was an excellent third down receiver in his time for the Jets. He figures to be in the 3rd/4th receiver slot on the depth chart at the moment and is a typical blue collar Steelers signing that usually pays dividends.
Cameron Heyward was potentially the quickest draft pick decision I have seen in all my time following the draft. You knew that meant something good when the team was that quick to select him once we were on the clock and you can see why. He seems the perfect fit for Defensive End in our 3-4 system, and he seems to picked up the playbook faster than Ziggy Hood had done is his rookie year. After a quiet but consistent preseason, Heyward could well work his way in to the rotation by mid season.
All eyes on me:
Antonio Brown burst out of the shadows and into the limelight this preseason, demanding attention with some outstanding grabs and a great knack for getting open. After last season where he was seldom used, but came up big when called upon, Brown has demanded more reps with his solid play and consistency, not to mention very good rapport with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The injury to Sanders and departure of Randle El opened up a hole for Brown to make the #3 role his own, and it seems like he may have just done that. Solid work ethic and study has allowed Brown to be better than advertised for a 6th round pick, and could well have a season of 40 catches for 600 yards as he fills that Nate Washington mold very nicely (and with better hands I might add).
Stevenson Sylvester has opened eyes ever since his rookie campaign and heads into the 2011 season looking harder, faster and stronger. The fans are eyeing him up as a potential replacement to James Farrior in the near future, and he is opening eyes of Steeler fans with some excellent play this pre season. He will again be looked upon to star on special teams, and when his time comes to fill holes in the defensive front seven, I am sure he will take full opportunity. A star in the making, as long as he does not get impatient.
Sink or Swim:
Much maligned are the duo of Bryant McFadden and William Gay, as many a fan of Steeler Nation had these two mens heads on the chopping block as soon as the 2010 season finished. It was no secret that neither of them were at their total best last season, BMac battled little annoying injuries for much of the season, and Gay seems to be forgotten when he does something well, but crucified when he does something marginally wrong.
The fact is, these two will be cornerbacks #2 and #3 heading into this season and the fans who have been drinking haterade may as well get used to it. BMac is the best tackling cornerback on this team, and works well in press coverage. Sure the receiver may make the grab, but you can guarantee he will not be getting far after that with BMac on his tail, which is exactly what Dick LeBeau requires of his number 2 corner.
Likewise, Gay has the all around ability to perform well in the nickel in LeBeau's system. He had 2 sacks out of the nickel not to mention a number of pressures last season, and for all the verbal beating he took from fans, he actually played rather solidly in 2010. The down points being his performance against Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers in the Patriots and Packers games respectively. However, look at some tape (namely Baltimore Ravens 2.0 and 3.0) and you will see he was clutch for us in those performances, covering Boldin, Mason and Housh.
Fact is we could do a hell of a lot worse. If these two can stay healthy and improve on their performances from 2010, we could again be finding ourselves deep in the postseason. Dont forget, we were Number 2 in the league in defense last year, not to mention the AFC representative in the Superbowl, with both these guys on the field.
I see the Steelers with a 12-4 or 13-3 record this season. I think we have a relatively easy schedule, the key will be staying focused and injury free as the season rolls on. We have looked exceptionally sharp this preseason, lets hope it continues all the way into February.
12-4. AFC North Champs.
Week One Matchup:
The Baltimore Ravens play host to the Steelers at M&T stadium to kick off the season in style. The Ravens generally play a lot better at home than they do away in divisional games, however they lost in their home game last season in the series. I go with the sharper of the two sides in the preseason, the Steelers, as I think the Ravens offensive line will struggle.
Steelers win: 20-10
See you after Week One with the usual Round Up. Here we go Steelers, Here we go!