2004 NFL Football Preview
Author: Barry McBride, BerniesInsiders.Com

09/12/04 Baltimore
09/19/04 @Dallas
09/26/04 @NY Giants
10/03/04 Washington
10/10/04 @Pittsburgh
10/17/04 Cincinnati
10/24/04 Philadelphia
11/07/04 @Baltimore
11/14/04 Pittsburgh
11/21/04 NY Jets
11//28/04 @Cincinnati
12/05/04 New England
12/12/04 @Buffalo
12/19/04 San Diego
12/26/04 @Miami
01/02/05 @Houston
Quarterback Jeff Garcia #5 of the Cleveland Browns hopes to turn the Browns struggling offense into a high powered balanced offense. It will be key to beat rival Baltimore Ravens in week one.
Getty Images/Dave Kaup
Head Coach: Butch Davis (Fourth season, 22-29)

Last Season's Record: 5-11, Fourth Place, AFC North

Last Play Off Appearance: 2002, Lost in Wild Card Playoff

Key matchup(s): Sept 12 Baltimore (CBS); Oct 10 Pittsburgh (CBS); Oct 24 Philadelphia (CBS); Nov 7 Baltimore (ESPN); Dec 5 New England (CBS)

Star Power: Jeff Garcia, QB, 6-1, 195; Courtney Brown, DE, 6-5, 270; Lee Suggs, RB, 6-0, 201; Kellen Winslow Jr., TE, 6-5, 250

Notable Additions: Jeff Garcia, QB, 6-1, 195 (free agent, San Francisco); Kellen Winslow Jr., TE, 6-5, 250 (draft choice); Warrick Holdman, LB, 6-1.5, 235 (free agent, Chicago); Kelvin Garmon, OG, 6-2, 350 (free agent, San Diego); Ebenezer Ekuban, DE, 6-3, 282 (free agent, Dallas); Terrelle Smith, FB, 6-0, 246 (free agent, New Orleans)

Notable Subtractions: Tim Couch, QB, 6-4, 227 (released); Chris Gardocki, P, 6-1, 200 (signed with Pittsburgh); Shaun O'Hara, OL, 6-3, 287 (signed with NY Giants); Barry Stokes, OL, 6-4, 310 (signed with NY Giants)

Notable Returnees: Andra Davis, MLB, 6-0, 246; Andre Davis, WR, 6-1, 194; William Green, RB, 6-0, 221; Robert Griffith, SS, 5-11, 197; Kenard Lang, DE, 6-1, 281; Daylon McCutcheon, CB, 5-10, 180; Quincy Morgan, WR, 6-1, 209; Dennis Northcutt, WR, 5-11, 175; Gerard Warren, DT, 6-4, 322;

Offensive Overview: While most of the media focus is on the change at quarterback from Tim Couch to Jeff Garcia, new offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie has no intention of adopting the West Coast Offense or any other pass-happy scheme. Robiskie and Davis want to run the ball down the throats of opponents, and they may finally have the players in place to win on the ground. The tandem of Lee Suggs and William Green have looked impressive and the offensive line has shown the ability to open holes on the left, middle, or right. The Browns will have a legitimate fullback for the first time in the expansion era, as Terrelle Smith will look to help the team convert the short-yardage and goal-line situations that were the bane of the team's existence in 2003.

The Browns have the weapons to be successful through the air, as well, as long as Jeff Garcia can get the time he needs. Wide Receivers Andre Davis, Quincy Morgan, and Dennis Northcutt are a solid three-some, and the Browns hope that new tight end Kellen Winslow, Jr. will create match-up nightmares for opponents. The confident rookie hopes to put up Jeremy Shockey and Tony Gonzalez-like numbers, and has all the physical tools to play at that level.

The wide open question for the Browns is around pass protection. During pre-season, Garcia was frequently harassed and the team made a large number of mental mistakes which helped to cancel out the stellar running of Suggs and Green. New acquisition Kelvin Garmon has struggled in pass protection, and Garcia may have to rely on his legs to stay healthy in 2004.

Defensive Overview: The Browns were humiliated last year by giving up three 200+ yard games, including an NFL-record 295 yard to Ravens RB Jamal Lewis. The team hopes to improve against the run in 2004, but made curiously few personnel moves to overhaul their run defense. The only major addition on defense is new weakside linebacker Warrick Holdman, a six-year veteran from Chicago. Clearly, the hope is that the second-year in Dave Campo's defensive scheme will mean that the players are reacting, rather than thinking, as plays develop. Browns players claim that this is the case, and anticipate better performance against the run.

The team's safeties continue to cause concern within the team and among the fans. Strong safety Robert Griffith, the 11-year veteran, is considered a leader on defense, but is accused by some observers as being more concerned with making "the big hit" than sure tackling. Free safety Earl Little has led the team in interceptions, but will be checking in his rear-view mirror for Chris Crocker as the sure-tackling second-year player has made a push for the starting job. Starting cornerbacks Daylon McCutcheon and Anthony Henry are solid.

In addition to Holdman, the Browns anticipate adding another new starter, Chaun Thompson, to the mix as the season continues. Thompson has been called a "freak" by his teammates for his athletic ability, but is still overcoming the jump from tiny West Texas A&M as he enters his second season. LB Andra Davis emerged as the team's starting linebacker in 2003, and has the potential to put up Pro Bowl caliber numbers in 2004.

The defensive line consists of five first-round draft choices: Courtney Brown (number 1 overall in 2000), Gerard Warren, Ebenezer Ekuban, Kenard Lang, and Orpheus Roye. Now, the team hopes they will play at that level. Courtney Brown was the team's defensive star before getting hurt again in 2003, and Gerard Warren has shown up lighter and quicker than he has before as a pro. The two defensive linemen hope to live up to their draft positions in 2004, as does pass rushing specialist Ebenezer Ekuban, signed by his old coach Dave Campo. If Brown and Warren can step up in 2004, the Browns have a chance to improve on their inconsistent performance in 2003. Butch Davis' fate as the Browns head coach may be determined by their play.

Special Teams Overview:
Some consider the Browns biggest loss this off-season to have been, not Tim Couch, but punter Chris Gardocki. Gardocki was signed by the team in 1999, and for five years was the model of consistency, and never had a punt blocked. Gardocki's foot is now in Pittsburgh, and the Browns hope that newcomer Derrick Frost can improve on Gardocki's gradually fading numbers. So far, Frost looks like he is getting greater hang time on his punts than the team had with Gardocki, and punt coverage appears to have improved as a result. Placekicker Phil Dawson looks like he will be in Cleveland for a while, and is a consistent and high-percentage kicker, although his range is in the lower half of the league's kickers.

Dennis Northcutt didn't run a punt back for touchdown in 2003, and hopes to change that this year. Northcutt remains an explosive presence on punt returns. The Browns haven't found a kick-off returner who matches Northcutt's big-play ability, but may have stumbled on to one in Panthers' reject RB Dee Brown. Brown has shown a canny ability to time his runbacks and allow blocking to set up, and has consistently given the Browns good field position so far this year.

The Browns look to bounce back to their 2002 playoff form... but will have a hard time doing so if they don't stop the run and protect the passer better than they did in 2003. So far, the results look to be mixed, but Butch Davis anticipates that the team will improve as the year goes on. If they don't, the Browns head coach may get a new opportunity to explore career options at the collegiate level.

Author: Greg Mastin, BengalsInsider.Com

09/12/04 @NY Jets
09/19/04 Miami 
09/26/04 Baltimore
10/03/04 @Pittsburgh
10/17/04 @Cleveland
10/25/04 Denver
10/31/04 @Tennessee
11/07/04 Dallas
11/14/04 @Washington 
11/21/04 Pittsburgh
11/28/04 Cleveland
12/05/04 @Baltimore
12/12/04 @New England 
12/19/04 Buffalo 
12/26/04 NY Giants
01/02/05 @Philadelphia
Carson Palmer #9 of the Cincinnati Bengals hopes to pick up where Jon Kitna left off leading the Bengals a year ago. Palmer has many weapons, but the second year pro must keep the mental mistakes down to a minimum.
Getty Images/Andy Lyons
Head Coach: Marvin Lewis (8-8)

Last Season's Record: 8-8 (2nd in the AFC North)

Last Playoff Appearance: 1990

Key matchup(s): 9/26 vs. Baltimore, 10/25 vs. Denver, the Bengals first Monday night home game since 1989, 12/5 at Baltimore, 12/12 at New England, Bengals vs. Dillon and the defending champs

Star Power: Carson Palmer, QB, 2nd year 6-5, 235, Rudi Johnson, RB, 4th year 5-10, 233, Brian Simmons, OLB, 7th year 6-3, 248, Willie Anderson, OT, 9th year 6-5, 340, Chad Johnson, WR, 4th year 6-2, 192

Notable Additions: Deltha O'Neal, CB, trade from Denver 5-11, 190, Nate Webster, MLB, free agent from Tampa Bay 6-0, 235

Notable Subtractions: Corey Dillon, traded to New England

Notable Returnees: Shayne Graham, K, 4th year 6-0, 197, Eric Steinbach, OG, 2nd year 6-6, 300, Levi Jones, OT, 3rd year 6-5, 310, Peter Warrick, WR, 5th year 5-11, 195

Offensive Overview: The Bengals should have a very potent offense as long as Carson Palmer can adjust in his first season as a starting quarterback. The offensive line, while thin, has a strong group of starters. The running game should be fine with Rudi Johnson lugging most of the carries, along with first round pick Chris Perry lining up in passing situations. The receivers are also deep. Chad Johnson has the ability to be a perennial Pro Bowl player, and he is complemented well by the physical Kelley Washington and slippery Peter Warrick. The only drawback is the inexperience at quarterback, where Carson Palmer will be taking his first snaps in the regular season. The Bengals will try and keep the ball on the ground, making positive yards and keeping Palmer out of tough situations as much as possible. But Palmer has too much talent to let the Bengals offense go the way of the Baltimore Ravens. Palmer will throw, and look for him to go deep more than Jon Kitna did a year ago. Palmer has a lot of weapons, and if he keeps the turnovers to a minimum, the Bengals should score their share of points. Even with Carson Palmer's growing pains, the Bengals will be balanced enough to keep defenses from keying on any single player. Teams will certainly try to blitz Palmer, so look for the Bengals to exploit these tendencies with quick passes, and draw plays on favorable passing downs.

Defensive Overview: (approximately 250 words outlining strengths, weaknesses, style) This is an area where the Bengals have a lot of questions. Certainly Marvin Lewis is molding the defense with the personnel he wants. Only four starters remain from the defense he took over in 2003. He has added a lot of speed, especially at linebacker. However the cost has been that this defense is very young and inexperienced. The run defense was a major concern heading into the preseason, but it has been the pass defense that has ultimately been the biggest problem. The front four has been nearly invisible when it comes to sacking the quarterback. Only end Duane Clemons has been consistent and he is a liability against the run. Justin Smith has been a disappointment since his 8½ sack total as a rookie. He seems to have regressed each season, and while his run defense has improved he has not shown any improvement in his ability to get the quarterback with any consistency. This lack of pass rush has exposed the secondary. Tory James, who was the top cornerback on the team a year ago, has been getting burned with regularity. The other starter, Deltha O'Neal, has been hurt, and isn't 100% heading into the season. The Bengals best two corners right now have been rookie Madieu Williams and former college free agent Terrell Roberts. The linebackers, particularly the new additions, have been good. Rookies Caleb Miller and Landon Johnson have displayed their speed and been very effective. The problem is that injuries have left the team very short on depth, and these rookies might be getting more playing time than the coaching staff would like. The Bengals may be forced to do more blitzing than they want in order to get pressure on the quarterback. This will leave the corners on an island, and they've yet to prove they are up to the task. Unless the defense plays significantly better than they did in the preseason, the Bengals will be forced to outscore teams this year.

Special Teams Overview: Marvin Lewis has made special teams a priority and it shows. The talent level has increased dramatically along with the team speed. The coverage units and return units should be improved over last year - and last year was a dramatic improvement over the year before. The Bengals are still a little unsettled at punter, where rookie Kyle Larson has been punter by default. He was borderline awful early in the preseason, but has shown improvement each week, and certainly has shown some potential. He will be the starter in week one. Regular punter Kyle Richardson has a torn bicep, and will be out long-term. At kicker the Bengals seem fine with Shayne Graham. They spent a lot of money to keep Graham from signing with Jacksonville, and so far he has repaid that commitment by drilling everything in the preseason.

The Bengals have a shot at winning the AFC North, but they must get consistent, mistake-free football from Carson Palmer, along with a much better performance this year from their 25th ranked defense. This season has some potential, but might end up being more of a 'take one step back to take two steps forward' kind of year.

Author: Steve Gardner, RavensInsider.Com

09/12/04 @Cleveland
09/19/04 Pittsburgh
09/26/04 @Cincinnati
10/04/04 Kansas City
10/10/04 @Washington
10/24/04 Buffalo
10/31/04 @Philadelphia
11/07/04 Cleveland
11/14/04 @NY Jets
11/21/04 Dallas
11/28/04 @New England
12/05/04 Cincinnati
12/12/04 NY Giants
12/19/04 @Indianapolis
12/26/04 @Pittsburgh
01/02/05 Miami
Jamal Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens hopes to be on the field and not in a court room. Ravens are stacked on defense, but possible losses on offense could derail all post season hopes.
Getty Images/Greg Fiume
Head Coach: Brian Billick (52-35)

Last Season's Record: 10-6

Conference Finish: First

Potential Key Matchup(s): September 19 (vs. Pittsburgh) at 1:00 pm September 26 (at Cincinnati) at 1:00 pm October 4 (vs. Kansas City) at 9:00 pm November 28 (at New England) at 1:00 pm December 5 (vs. Cincinnati) at 1:00 pm December 19 (at Indianapolis) at 8:30 pm December 26 (at Pittsburgh) at 1:00 pm

Star Power: Ray Lewis, ILB, 6'1, 245 pounds, 9 years NFL experience Jamal Lewis, RB, 5'11, 240 pounds, 5 years NFL experience Jonathan Ogden, LT, 6'9, 340 pounds, 9 years NFL experience Ed Reed, FS, 5'11, 200 pounds, 3 years NFL experience Chris McAlister, 6'1, 206 pounds, 6 years NFL experience Todd Heap, 6'5, 252 pounds, 4 years NFL experience

Notable Additions: Kevin Johnson, WR, 5'11, 195 pounds (acquired through trade from Jacksonville) Deion Sanders, CB, 6'1, 195 pounds (signed as free-agent out of retirement) Kordell Stewart, QB, 6'1, 217 pounds (signed as free-agent from Chicago) Notable Subtractions: Tom Knight, John Jones, Marcus Robinson, Frank Sanders, Chris Redman, Tom Knight, Harold Morrow

Offensive Overview: The Ravens are an old style, smash mouth offense that relies on a dominant rush attack and smart game management to win ball games. Strengths: The strength of the offense is all facets of the running game. Jamal Lewis is the NFL's top pure running back. He has the strength to break tackles consistently, and the acceleration to dash past defensive backs once he's in the open field. As the game progresses, and Lewis is given more and more carries, he can impose his will on a defense. The blocking for Lewis is also tremendous. The Ravens boast perhaps the top run blocking offensive line in the game which is led by future hall-of-famer Jonathan Ogden. Alan Ricard is among the top isolation blocking fullbacks in the game, and receivers Todd Heap, Terry Jones and Travis Taylor are also solid run blockers. The Ravens also have the depth at running back to rely less on Lewis than they did a year ago. Backups Chester Taylor and Musa Smith are capable runners in their own right, and they have the coaching staff's confidence. Weaknesses: The biggest area of concern is still the passing attack. Baltimore ranked dead last in pass offense last season. The front office and the coaching staff hopes that second-year quarterback Kyle Boller can make enough strides to improve the efficiency needed from the quarterback position. The pass blocking effectiveness of the offensive line remains questionable. Although the additions of Kevin Johnson and rookie Devard Darling, as well as the return of Randy Hymes, brings a nice infusion of talent to wide receiver core, there is still no dominant pass catching option outside of Pro-Bowl tight end Todd Heap.

Defensive Overview: The Ravens run a hybrid scheme that uses masking and confusion to disrupt the rhythm of opposing offenses. Strengths: This is a defense that has great speed, versatility and depth. The biggest strength of this unit is the linebackers. Not only do the Ravens have perhaps the best starting core of players in the league, but depth is just as good. Ray Lewis, the most dominant defensive player in the NFL today, leads this group. Terrell Suggs and Peter Boulware are ideal bookend pass rushers, while Edgerton Hartwell is a crash guy who plays the run as tough as any player playing at his position. The back end is also a talented group led by Pro-Bowl players like Chris McAlister and Ed Reed. Weaknesses: Perhaps the only question mark of the defense is whether or not the defensive line- a much better group than given credit for- can keep from wearing down during the course of the season. The line has been effective against the run over the past couple of seasons, but bigger offensive lines can give this group some trouble. Another concern is the health of Peter Boulware. Boulware is slated to miss the first five games of the season due to a knee injury, and although there is a plethora of linebackers of solid linebackers that can take his place, it remains to be seen if any of those players will provide the pass rushing skills and savvy that Boulware has brought to the table for the past seven seasons.

Special Teams Overview: Overall, this is a unit without many holes. The kicking game will have continuity, as all three kickers from last year's roster return. Matt Stover is a reliable place kicker from 40 yards and in; Wade Richey gets great depth on kickoffs; and Dave Zastudil is a solid, if unspectacular punter that still needs to hone his accuracy. Coverage units should be strong for another season in a row. Leading the way on punt and kick coverage is the game's best gunner: Adalius Thomas. Gerome Sapp, Bart Scott, Chad Williams, Will Demps and Ed Reed will support Thomas in coverage situations. The visible weakness is at the return spots. Rookie B.J. Sams is being counted on to provide electricity and consistency to kick/punt return game, but he is still an unknown commodity going into the season.

If the Ravens win the Super Bowl, it will win it by playing lights out defense, running the ball extremely well, winning the field position battle consistently and posting a turnover ratio that exceeds the +10 mark.

Author: Jim Russell, SteelCitySports.Com

09/12/04 Oakland
09/19/04 @Baltimore
09/26/04 @Miami
10/03/04 Cincinnati
10/10/04 Cleveland
10/17/04 @Dallas
10/31/04 New England
11/07/04 Philadelphia
11/14/04 @Cleveland
11/21/04 @Cincinnati
11//28/04 Washington
12/05/04 @Jacksonville
12/12/04 NY Jets
12/18/04 @NY Giants
12/26/04 Baltimore
01/02/05 @Buffalo
Casey Hampton #98 of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks to toughen up the defense, but the pass defense is the big hurdle for Pittsburgh to overcome.
Getty Images/Doug Pensinger
Head Coach: Bill Cowher (120-82-1)

Last Season's Record: (6 - 10)

Last Playoff Appearance: (2002)

Key Match-up(s): Oakland (Sept. 12), Baltimore (Sept. 19), New England (Oct. 31), Buffalo (Jan. 2)

Star Power: WR Hines Ward (5-11, 197, 7th yr), Duce Staley (5-11, 220, 8th yr), James Farrior (6-2, 242, 8th yr), Aaron Smith (6-5, 300, 6th yr)

Notable Additions: CB Ricardo Colclough (2nd Rnd pick 2004 Draft), QB Ben Roethlisberger (1st Rnd pick 2004 Draft), DE Travis Kirschke (Free Agent San Francisco 49'ers), RB Duce Staley (Free Agent Philadelphia Eagles), WR Sean Morey (Free Agent Philadelphia Eagles)

Notable Subtractions: TE Mark Bruener (Houston Texans), DE Rodney Bailey (New England Patriots), LB Jason Gildon (Buffalo Bills - Released), CB Dwayne Washington (Jacksonville Jaguars)

Notable Returnees: LB Clark Haggans (Starter), FB Dan Kreider (Starter), S Mike Logan (Backup)

Offensive Overview: The Pittsburgh Steelers offense must get back to its basics and jump-start the run game. Duce Staley opening the season will give the Steelers a much more versatile back. Jerome Bettis will see limited action the first 6 weeks, but as the season progresses and the playoff picture is in sight, look for a healthy and fresh Bettis to start rolling and split time with Staley. Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress are the "fear factor" for any opposing defenses. If Burress' preseason dedication continues on into the regular season, it can mean big things for the Steelers offense, as well as a big contract in the offering for the soon-to-be free agent. The key however is the offensive line. The rock of the line is Pro-Bowl guard Alan Faneca, but he will need some help from his friends. Over the last two seasons, the health of the line has been comparable to that found in a MASH unit. Oliver Ross has started looking like a solid RT, but will get tested early vs. the Oakland Raiders in Week 1 and the Baltimore Ravens in Week 2. OG Kendall Simmons is already on IR, and the line can't afford to lose another starter, as the depth is unappealing. The best backup may be OG Jim Jones (UDFA Baltimore), a free agent signing in 2004.

Defensive Overview: The pass defense in 2003 was the greatest downfall of the entire team. They could not stop teams from converting on 3rd down and this usually resulted in scores. It appeared that the Steelers' top priority for this season was to upgrade, but replacing Dewayne Washington with Deshea Townsend, who came in for an injured Washington midway through 2003 to provide a only a modest improvement, and keeping RCB Chad Scott as a starter has the potential to be a situation that will only get worse. Scott is a safety playing CB and, while his run defense is above average, CB's are supposed to stop the pass, something Scott only does after the receiver catches the ball. The drafting of Ricardo Colclough looks to be a solid pick, but won't make a real impact until next season. CB Ike Taylor had a rough training camp, and has been demoted and replaced by Colclough. Both are expected to be starters in 2005. The best hope for this group of corners is for new Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau to rewrite the playbook and use a New England Patriots type pressure defense. DE Aaron Smith and LB James Farrior will have to carry the defensive line and linebacker corps, as LBs Joey Porter and Kendrell Bell have not been impressive since their rookie seasons. Teams will continue to work away from Smith and attack Kimo Von Oelhoffen like last season, when Von Oelhoffen had his best year but the defense had the worst year overall. Bottom Line... If the Steelers don't attack with the front 7, defensive backs will only be able to see the back of receivers' jerseys, as they head to the end zone.

Special Teams Overview: Recently-signed WR Sean Morey will prove to be the Steelers' most important move on special teams by year's end. The former Eagles special teams MVP could wind up with the same honor this season with the Steelers. LB James Harrison, after a great preseason, will be able to wreak havoc on kick coverage units if the Steelers decide to dress him. Add DB Chidi Iwuoma and LB Clint Kriewaldt to Morey and Harrison, and look for the Steelers special teams to be one of the league's best by season's end, especially if they get lots of playing time due to a struggling defense, as happened last season. However, there is a weakest link - the Steelers will hold on to PK Rob Bironas's number, as many don't have much confidence in second year PK Jeff Reed. 

The Pittsburgh Steelers will be in the playoffs if...... Their defense becomes aggressive and smart, and the offensive line stays healthy. The Cincinnati Bengals and the Baltimore Ravens will have solid seasons, but both have glaring weaknesses on offense.