AFC North Overview

The Baltimore Ravens could be on the verge of something heading into the 2005 season. Playing a close to the vest offensive scheme over the past few seasons, times appear to be changing. Sporting a defense which is considered championship quality, it has been the lack of offensive productivity that has hampered the Ravens.

Going back to the season (2000) when they won the Super Bowl, the Ravens were a defensive-oriented team. The theory of head coach Brian Billick being an offensive guru may be somewhat overstated when examining the final product on the field in Baltimore, but the Ravens have been proactive this off-season in filling one of their most critical needs.

The addition of wide receiver Derrick Mason should make an immediate impact on the Baltimore offense, which is now under the tutelage of former Arizona and New York Giants head coach Jim Fassel. An offensive make-over, long overdue in Baltimore is underway. Jim Fassel replaces Matt Cavanaugh as the offensive coordinator and Rick Neuheisel has been named the new quarterbacks coach to take quarterback Kyle Boller's game to the next level.

Still an immediate concern in Baltimore is the state of the offensive line. The Ravens are expected to become a more balanced team in the 2005 season, but to accomplish this there is an immediate need of quality and depth along the offensive line to protect Boller, as the Ravens are expected to throw the ball more often.

Protecting the quarterback wasn't an issue in Pittsburgh during the 2004 season, but there could be some problems for a Pittsburgh team which had the same offensive linemen start every game last season. 2004 starters, Oliver Ross (Cardinals) and Keydrick Vincent (Ravens) have departed in free agency. A lack of experience and depth leaves the Steelers very vulnerable on the right-side of the offensive line.

With Simmons expected back at full strength for the 2005 season, the Steelers will lineup 4/5 of their projected 2004 starting offensive line, with Simmons being thought of as an improvement at the right guard position Vincent vacates (Marvel Smith, Alan Fanaca, and Jeff Hartings return), with Max Starks expected to get a look in replacing Ross, if the team does not address the issue in free agency.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will have a season under his belt, but the team will have to deal with the loss of starting wide receiver Plaxico Burress (Giants), the loss of Burress could have a rippling affect on the Steelers of 2005. Burress was a legitimate deep threat for the Steelers and his departure leaves a void for the Steelers to address. Hines Ward is a nearly perfect possession receiver, but lacks the speed and quickness to be a deep threat. Antwaan Randall El is a quick receiver, Lee Mays is a shifty-type receiver, with free agent acquisition Cedrick Wilson (49ers) being the teams most viable option in the vertical game.

Defensively, the Steelers regained the physical, consistent pressure defense of days gone by. Pittsburgh will welcome back from injury 2003 All-Pro defensive tackle Casey Hampton and his ability to take up space and blockers at the point of attack along the interior defensive line.

Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will have an outstanding corps of linebackers to work with again in the 2005 season. Kendrell Bell (Chiefs) departs, but he missed most of the 2004 season, with his replacement Larry Foote having a solid season. Starters Clark Haggins, Joey Porter, and James Farrior are the horses of this very solid Pittsburgh defense and there is no reason to believe they will slip in 2005.

Speaking of defense, this was a surprising and much desired need in Cincinnati. For the 2004 Cincinnati Bengals, an improved defense was the issue, with a solid look towards the future in the Queen City. While improved overall, the Bengals were far from a consistent defensive presence. Chuck Bresnahan has been named the new defensive coordinator, along with Lewis like a defense which is fundamentally sound, fast, and players that don't make game-changing mistakes.

With the Bengals now sporting a dynamic presence at quarterback, a talented running back, a pair of high-quality receivers, a tough veteran offensive line, and a young improving defense, these Bengals have turned the corner.

The Bengals retained wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who had a breakout season in 2004. Teaming with Chad Johnson, Houshmandzadeh provides young quarterback Carson Palmer a significant weapon in the passing game, which should only improve as the Cincinnati offense gains experience together.

Palmer returns after missing the team's final three games of the 2004 season due to a strained medial collateral ligament in his left knee. Healthy, Palmer has been medically cleared to fully participate in the team's off-season conditioning program that begins in early April.

Re-signing running back Rudi Johnson was a critical transaction for a Cincinnati team without depth at the running back position. Johnson has proven to be a tough, durable runner who provides a balance to a Cincinnati offense that can be very explosive in the passing game.

This has been an off-season of change for the Cleveland Browns, and the pace shows little sign of slowing.

General Manager Phil Savage and Head Coach Romeo Crennel are quickly rebuilding the Browns in a new image, seemingly based on the New England Patriots success using smart, versatile, team-oriented players. The new brain trust faces a tremendous challenge adapting the team to Crennel's preferred 3-4 defensive scheme and in rebuilding a squad handicapped by poor draft selections, lackluster morale, and inattention to the offensive line.

The Browns still have substantial work to do preparing for the 2005 season. The team's defensive front seven are likely to be changed further, as the Browns continue to chase free agent linemen and linebackers who better fit Crennel's scheme. Depth on the offensive line remains a concern, as does the need to define the future at quarterback. The team's needs are so profound that they could go in any number of directions (linebacker, corner, quarterback, running back, wide receiver) on draft day, and Savage will certainly entertain trade-down offers for more picks.


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