The view from the top of the AFC North

This is the time of year when every fan can dream about the Super Bowl. There is no such thing as a bad draft, yet. The more roster turnover there is, the greater the hope. However, what hope is there for the fans of the Steelers? From almost all accounts, Pittsburgh rested on the laurels of a 10-5-1 season while the rest of the AFC North was busy improving. In a topsy-turvy NFL, are the tables about to turn on the champions of the North division?

Bottoms up for the Cincinnati Bengals?

There can only be one true rags-to-riches in the North in 2003. The Bengals were the cellar dwellers and there is nowhere to go but up. Right?

Bengals fans certainly have plenty of reason to hope for better times. Marvin Lewis is the new coach, a few free agents finally signed to play in Cincinnati, and the Bengals enjoyed the first pick in the NFL Draft.

There's the rub, the first pick in the draft. Since the Bengals last had the #1 overall pick in 1995, no team in that position has finished better than 7-9. In 1996, after the New York Jets enjoyed the standing at the top of the draft, they finished 1-15. The Cleveland Browns picked first in 1999 and 2000. The Browns barely hit playoff pay dirt in 2002 and may not even get there in 2003.

There is hope within reason and Cincinnati won't compete for the North championship this year. Lewis is supposed to be the big improvement, but he's an unknown commodity as a head coach. Furthermore, the Pittsburgh Steelers struggled with the Bungles, no matter how bad they were.

The major question mark has to be team chemistry, something that is often overlooked (because it is hard to gauge from the outside looking in) when a team's off-season is evaluated. Lewis let Takeo Spikes go in favor of Kevin Hardy. On paper, this looks like a downgrade.

Looking at the Buffalo Bills, one may think that the Bengals loss is the Bills gain. However, there is just no accounting for how the locker room will adjust to all the new players. From the Bengals standpoint, it was addition by subtraction.

Recently signed TE Jay Riemersma shed some light on the subject in a recent interview with SteelCitySports own George Von Benko.

"This is an easy group to fit in with," Riemersma said about his first encounter with his new Steeler teammates. "You know, there's not too many bad apples in there. The guys seem to get along together."

Riemersma seems to have fit in right away, but he had a few negative things to say about the locker room situation in Buffalo.

"Guys were pulling for one another in the workouts and stuff," Riemersma commented about his initial experiences in the Steelers mini-camp. "And to be perfectly honest, I haven't seen that for a number of years in Buffalo.

"So, this is exciting to be around here. It is a great time to be a Steeler."

We won't really know how the Bengals upgraded until we start hearing about the resulting team chemistry.

At least for another year, these are the best of times for Bengals fans, before the season starts.

Which team is next in the rearview mirror?

The Browns were the ones breathing down the neck of the Steelers in 2002. The Steelers barely survived each of the three battles with Cleveland. Any minor improvement in the Browns and they should overtake the Steelers in the AFC North.

Again, that might look right on paper.

However, the balance of the off-season ledger for the Browns appears to be a minus. Cleveland released a number of veterans in what looked like a housecleaning. There are a number of talented younger players that may well step up, but this crew may pose more question marks than the cursed Bengals.

The Browns still need to build a top-notch offensive line and certainly need much better play from their front four on defense. Cleveland took a few steps in this direction, but the payoff looks to be down the road a season or two.

The Browns took a step backwards this off-season looking to take two steps forward in 2004. At least in the short term, Cleveland gave up some ground to the Steelers.

Ah, but the Baltimore Ravens were the real surprise of the AFC North in its inaugural season. Despite all the cap woes, Brian Billick rallied his squad just short of another playoff appearance.

By almost every account, the Ravens had a great draft. The defense should continue to be formidable with the addition of sack master Terrell Suggs. However, the offense looks surprisingly unimproved, if not worse.

Baltimore has finally put its eggs in the basket of QB Chris Redman. For better or worse, the fate of the Ravens is in his hands. If there are questions about the Bengals and Browns, the QB issue in Baltimore may overshadow both.

The tale of the tape in Baltimore in 2002 for the offense and defense was not all that impressive to begin with. Another year to age all those young players should help, along with the healthy return of Ray Lewis, but the story of the Ravens success was on special teams and big plays on defense (bend, but don't break).

How will this translate into play for 2003?

That's the big question.

The Steelers have upgraded during this off-season, it was just in an area that no one seems to measure, special teams.

That, and the fact that the Steelers still won one playoff game despite injuries to Chad Scott, Mike Logan, Kendrell Bell, Todd Peterson, and Josh Miller (to name a few).

The entire Steelers kicking game was on the IR. Any chance the Steelers might upgrade that handicap?

Key players were injured for much of the 2002 season. How health will play out in 2003 is anyone's guess, but the Steelers look better going into 2003 than they did in 2002.

However, reports of SS Troy Polamalu's (the Steelers first round pick) nagging hamstring injury keeping him out of off-season activities may cast a big shadow over the Steelers hopes.

Nonetheless, small splashes in free agency, mainly the signing of LB Clint Kriewaldt, might have a big impact on special teams. The Ravens demonstrated in 2002 the value of big play coverage units along with a dangerous return game. The Steelers were likely reminded of that when they went after projects Ike Taylor, Alonzo Jackson, and J.T. Wall in the draft.

Add to that the emerging story of DE Brett Keisel and DB Chidi Iwuoma. The big problem coming out of the 2001 campaign was special teams. Sometimes it takes a season or two to fix these problems. Just ask the Bengals or Browns (and perhaps the Ravens who went after Kyle Boller).

The Steelers are now a much more dangerous team than they were in 2001, when they went 13-3. If Bell, Polamalu, and Hampton can stay healthy, the defense will be better than that crew that was the best in the NFL.

Overall, the pundits have been too enamored with the draft, full of projects and gambles, while failing to give enough attention to special teams. The sacks of Suggs will grab headlines, but jarring tackles by Jackson, Kriewaldt, or Keisel on coverage may be more important to the Steelers' success.

Jim Russell

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