Crushed Optimists

We are twin brothers who grew up in Central Washington. This blog is devoted to the life of Seattle sports fans, as well as various other topics that we will espouse for your enjoyment. We could be called another OFFICIAL SEATTLE SEAHAWKS site, but we'll take our uneducated crack at the Mariners, Sonics, and Huskies as well. A Seattle Sports Blog? Must be the land... of crushed optimism!

Thursday, August 25, 2005

NFL Preview: AFC North

2004 Standings:

Pittsburgh: 15-1
Baltimore: 9-7
Cincinatti: 8-8
Cleveland: 4-12

Overview:
This division was obviously dominated by the Steelers last year, as the above record denotes. What is not as often discussed was the large disappointment in the performances of Baltimore and Cincinatti, two teams that were preseason postseason picks (say that three times fast). Both teams sputtered and performed far below expectations. The Browns were a train wreck waiting to happen but enter the year with more optimism.

Pittsburgh:
Will Ben Roethlisberger have a sophomore slump? Enquiring minds want to know. This team has always been my second-favorite team in the NFL, not sure why, so last year was exciting for me.

Key Losses: WR Plaxico Burress, T Oliver Ross

Key Additions: TE Heath Miller, WR Cedrick Wilson, WR Fred Gibson

Offense: I remember back in the day when Madden 95 came out. I would be the Steelers against Colin (Detroit). Jerome Bettis ruled that game at the height of the stiff arm. I would run to the sideline, destroy the cornerback, and crank off 20 yard runs routinely. Not since those years had Jerome Bettis been the player he was in 2004. He regained some of his lost speed to hit holes, and no one can take him down one-on-one. Whether he can keep it up this year is a huge key to this offense. Luckily, the offensive line is mainly intact, and outside of Kansas City is the best in the AFC (although possibly with some speed issues in pass protection). There will be holes for Bettis, and time for Roethlisberger. Big Ben enters his sophomore season with plenty of questions as well. Is there a sophomore jinx? What will be the effect of losing Plaxico Burress? Personally, I feel it is minimized by the addition of TE Heath Miller, a steal of a 1st round pick. Free agent addition WR Cedrick Wilson was a pretty consistent performer for the 49ers last year and could fill the hole well, especially when paired with WR Antwaan Randle El. Hines Ward is one of my favorite players in the league, and won't let the time off from training camp affect him. This offense won't score 40, but it will be very consistent.

Colin: Jerome Bettis in Madden sucked. There, I said it. How anyone can say that Cedrick Wilson was pretty consistent last year is beyond me. Bettis found a 6th life last year. That won't continue. Roethlisberger WILL have a sophomore slump, not because of a lack of talent, but because he played above himself last year. This offense actually will struggle for the first few months of the season. However, come November, I look for this thing to gel, and really gain steam inevitably heading into the postseason. Surprise performer: Antwaan Randle El. Big things will happen from this man.

Defense: When you have a consistent offense combined with this defense... man. Pittsburgh had the #1 defense in the league in terms of pts against (only 251) and returns most starters. They were that good without NT Casey Hampton, and with him returning can only improve. He now has a great backup in NT Chris Hoke, and one cannot forget DE Aaron Smith, who came out of nowhere to be a fantastic rusher. Basically, the Steelers do an amazing job drafting talent and it shows. Who knew most of these names before last year? Speaking of which, LB James Farrior turned into the next Ray Lewis, while Joey Porter continues to recover from his gunshot wound. The secondary's strength is at the safety position with S Troy Polamalu and S Chris Hope, although they have problems crowding the line too much. The corners have to be termed a weakness. Aging and fairly slow, but even Willie Williams proved he still had game left after leaving Seattle. This will be a team tough to score on again. A major strength.

Colin: They made my fantasy team last year. They will be awesome once again, and will be one of the top-3 defenses in the NFL. Dick LeBeau is in his 2nd year as D-Coordinator, and has the guys he wants for the system. Kendrell Bell was expendable. The only weakness might be in the corners, but the safeties are strong enough that they might be able to cope.

Overhyped Myth: Ben Roethlisberger is not the best QB in the division. He doesn't make mistakes and can seem smarter than he truly is. However, there is plenty of growth needed before the Steelers can depend on him to take them to the promised land. He will need plenty of help from the running game.

Colin: Who's better then him in this division? Carson Palmer? Trent Dilfer? Kyle Boller? How about giving us a real myth, Gavin? The overhyped myth about this team is that they are the favorite to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. There are questions surrounding this team, including the health and production of Jerome Bettis, the production of Big Ben, and whether the defense can maintain their high level of production. More questions then the Pats, for sure.

Understated Reality: This season rides on the Bus. If the running game is solid and consistent, this team wins this division and makes a serious run at the Super Bowl. If he falls back to 2002-2003 versions, they ride Big Ben too far.

General Prognosis: This is a scary good team that no one should want to play. Bill Cowher and company have done it again.

Early Season Game I'm Looking Forward To: Sept. 25 vs. New England... you want me to explain this?

Baltimore:
Same old story last year... great defense, crappy offense. Can the supposed offensive genius Brian Billick actually show up? Will anyone score on the Ravens?

Key Losses: No one of consequence

Key Additions: WR Derrick Mason, QB Derek Anderson, WR Mark Clayton, DE Dan Cody, CB Samari Rolle

Offense: All you need to know about how improved this team could be is right up there. The Ravens lost no one important and gained real weapons. Now it is up to QB Kyle Boller to show all the doubters that he is an NFL quarterback. If he isn't up to the challenge, the Ravens drafted QB Derek Anderson from Oregon St, who could truly be a steal. WR Derrick Mason had the most receptions in the league and WR Mark Clayton might be the most NFL ready rookie. 3rd WR Clarence Moore has showed glimpses of greatness and at 6-6 is a matchup nightmare, especially around the goal line. It's like having a second tight end. Speaking of tight ends, the Ravens have to be incredibly excited to get TE Todd Heap back. Heap is a gamebreaker in the form of Tony Gonzalez. I love his game. Finally, of course whenever you have Jamal Lewis with nothing hanging over his head you will have a great running attack. Lewis will be running behind an effective but aging offensive line. T Jonathan Ogden has lost a step and gets beaten more regularly, but is still one of the top ten in the league. The rest of the key performers are all on the wrong side of 30. This could become an issue in both endurance and health. Still, the Ravens could actually average 20 points, which could be enough to run the table because...

Colin: Word out of Baltimore is that people are already starting to be a little ancy with Boller's performance this preseason. He has absolutely no excuses with the weapons he has this year, plus he has about five coaches specifically there to work with him, including all-time UW favorite Richard Neuheisel. Jamal Lewis is only 25. There, I said it.

Defense: This defense is going to be freaking insane. There are some issues with the defensive line in the switch to the 4-3 front. I would actually call them weak in the middle. Former NT Kelly Gregg isn't that impressive a player and it will be interesting to see how LB/DE Terrell Suggs makes the transition back to being on the line every down. He's such a great player though, that it shouldn't make a huge difference. Of course, when discussing this defense one cannot forget the best defensive player in the league, LB Ray Lewis (with all respect to S Ed Reed, the 2004 NFL Defensive Player of the Year). Lewis is always around the ball, and is the emotional leader of this defense. You could not have any other linebackers and still call it good. I would be a little worried about getting a LB from the Rams to plug a hole (Tommy Polley), because the Rams LB corps last year was flat out awful. This secondary is just nuts. The aforementioned Reed at safety, CB Chris McAlister (probably the best corner in the league) on one side, CB Samari Rolle (top ten) on the other. If the opposing team goes to three or four WR sets, the Ravens plug in CB Dale Carter and of course, CB Deion Sanders. Any team that throws for 200 yards against this team will have earned it, which is why I am really looking forward to the game below against Indianapolis.

Colin: I actually don't know if the defense will be "insane". I don't know if the defense will be top-5. I'm serious. Ray Lewis seemed a bit slower last year, missing more tackles then I had ever seen (at least in the games I watched). The secondary on paper is phenomenal, but the D-Line is just ok, and it remains to be seen how the new scheme will shape out on the field.

Overhyped Myth: The offensive additions mean nothing if Kyle Boller doesn't improve. You can hype Derrick Mason all you want, but if Boller can't get him the ball this offense will still spin its wheels. Another myth is that the transition to the 4-3 defense may weaken this team. Many of the Ravens personnel were strong in the 3-4 and could struggle this year in the different scheme. I guess I just wonder why you mess with such success.

Understated Reality: Anything less than a 10 win season will be a huge disappointment for this team. They are built to win now. Also, another reality is the return of TE Todd Heap may be just what Boller needs. His loss last year cannot be understated.

General Prognosis: I am hoping to watch every Pittsburgh/Baltimore game. They will be insanely entertaining football games. These teams will battle out for the division lead until the last week.

Early Season Game I'm Looking Forward To: Sept. 11 vs. Indianapolis... Peyton Manning against this new secondary. Who comes out on top?

Cincinatti:
This team took a step back last year to try and take a large step forward this year. As with the rest of the front runners, it all lands on the QB spot.

Key Losses: No one of huge value

Key Additions: DE/LB David Pollack, OLB Odell Thurman

Offense: This is a team that offensively stayed pat that probably could have used some upgrades at the offensive line positions and at tight end. RB Rudi Johnson took the next step as the replacement to Corey Dillon and is solid to the tune of 1500 yards and 10+ touchdowns. They have a great backup in RB Chris Perry as well. WR Chad Johnson had an inconsistent year (less than his mouth would like you to believe), and so the resigning of WR TJ Houshmandzadeh (Oregon St teammate of Johnson's) was extremely important for Cincinatti. The depth at WR is actually fairly impressive. WR Kelley Washington was pretty darn good at Tennesse and one cannot forget about WR Peter Warrick, who can still break a long run-after-the-catch a few times a season. QB Carson Palmer was... okay last year. He had some great games and some poor games, but overall made Marvin Lewis look good for choosing him over QB Jon Kitna. He will have to take a leap forward this year. However, I feel that the offensive line is fairly weak, and doesn't give Palmer all the time he needs. This is a unit that needs to step it up. I would deem it mediocre.

Colin: They have been 8-8 the past two seasons, and I wouldn't be surprised if that remained constant this season as well. Palmer looked very vulnerable at times, the O-Line is nothing special, and Johnson seems more interested in yapping his mouth then catching the damn ball. Almost the Seattle Seahawks of the AFC, except since the AFC is deeper they aren't as much a playoff threat.

Defense: Any team coached by Marvin Lewis should have an excellent defense. The draft helped them out tremendously. DE turned LB David Pollack might have been the best defensive player in college football last year. OLB Odell Thurman is huge and plays with a mean streak. He can take plays off and is termed "dumb" when it comes to picking up a playbook. Not a great combo for a rookie. The defensive line gives up too many rushing yards. DE Justin Smith can get some good pressure on the QB, but needs help on the other side. The rookies should help the linebacking group, but that's asking for a lot from them to upgrade their run support. Depth is a major issue on both lines. If any of the starters go down there is absolutely nothing to plug in. The secondary is definitely a strength, with Pro Bowl CB Tory James paired with former Bronco Deltha O'Neal as a solid one-two punch. Unfortunately they play in a division focused on the power running game (Jerome Bettis and Jamal Lewis).

Overhyped Myth: Cincinatti is not ready for prime-time. They lack enough playmakers on both offense and defense to win games, especially against Baltimore and Pittsburgh. While they still are better than what Cincy fans used to have to deal with, they have entered the "Mediocre Zone" that Seahawks fans are well aware of.

Understated Reality: Any chance of a playoff berth rests on the growth of Carson Palmer, as yet another young quarterback in this division. His decision making will be crucial against the insane defenses he will see regularly.

General Prognosis: 9-7 is the best Cincinatti can hope for. They just don't have enough to do better.

Early Season Game I'm Looking Forward To: Sept. 18 vs. Minnesota... good test for this club

Cleveland:
One of those teams I tried to stay as far away from last year. Boring, unredeemable football. Might improve... but not much. Look forward to Romeo Crennel's first season as head coach.

Key Losses: TE Kellen Winslow, Jr (injury), WR Andre' Davis, Defensive Line

Key Additions: QB Trent Dilfer, RB Reuben Droughns, WR Braylon Edwards, G Joe Andruzzi, T LJ Shelton, CB Gary Baxter, S Brian Russell

Offense: Well, it can't get much worse. The Browns were absolutely abysmal offensively last year. They didn't have a single outstanding player, and it showed (only 276 points). To put that in perspective, Miami scored 275, and we all know what a light show THAT offense was. QB Trent Dilfer is a good start. He's a smart player, and while he won't run up the yardage, he will limit stupid mistakes. His speciality is not allowing an offense to beat itself, and the Browns could really use that. RB Lee Suggs was hurt for much of the year, but is a suitable runner, and RB Reuben Droughns should share the load effectively. Hopefully they never term either the feature back, because it would be a bad decision. WR Braylon Edwards is a stud and gives them a great possession threat. Not much help with him in the passing game, especially with another season ending injury to TE Kellen Winslow. Getting G Joe Andruzzi from the Patriots is an underrated move. They should at least be watchable.

Colin: Dilfer won't lose you games, but he sure won't win you games. I expect Droughns to be another in the long line of Denver running backs who sucked after they left the mountains (I'm looking at you, Portis). Edwards is a stud, but Dilfer isn't a really accurate passer, especially downfield. The conservative offense won't allow Edwards to really BE a stud. The injury to Winslow will really hurt the Browns offensive chances to be respectable.

Defense: GM Phil Savage has to be given credit for unloading an entire expensive underachieving defensive line on Denver. That took some doing. Unfortunately there's not much left over. Grabbing CB Gary Baxter from Baltimore was a major coup. The linebacking corp is fairly strong, but the defensive line replacements are stopgaps. Crennel will have to lean on his own defensive expertise to keep this team in games, because this roster should scare no one. I feel their moves in the offseason probably helped them more for next year than for this one. At least Crennel feels like he has his kind of players... character "Ruskell" fellows. I can't trash on that.

Overhyped Myth: Reuben Droughns. He is yet another product of the Denver offensive machine. I sure hope they aren't resting anything on him, because Browns fans will be pretty darn disappointed. Lee Suggs is at least as good, and probably better.

Understated Reality: You cannot help but like the type of quality veterans brought into this team. Trent Dilfer, Joe Andruzzi, Gary Baxter, all players which can help instill a winning environment in a team desperately in need of it. The Browns have done nothing since coming back into the league and are hoping that this is the final rebuilding job necessary to regain respectability. These veterans are the first step.

Colin: To me, the understated reality is how good a coach I think Romeo will be. Sure, this team might not do as much this year, but I am genuinely excited to see how he does. You can be sure that this team will play hard, play well, and play to the best of their abilities. That will be enough to generate a few interesting upsets that will encourage those poor Cleveland fans who have had to deal with so much crap.

General Prognosis: Look, this isn't a great team. But it is an improved team, and I especially look forward to seeing how this offense performs (and Braylon Edwards). Good luck Trent!

Early Season Game I'm Looking Forward To: Sept. 18 at Green Bay... this team could make a statement about their improvements at the Frozen Tundra

posted by Gavin @ 8:52 PM  3 comments

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