Unit comparisons in the AFC North

This week: <b>Special Teams</b><br><br> In the NFL, the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts. If any team proved that, the 2001 New England Patriots did. However, the strengths and weaknesses of any team's units, including special teams, can be exploited, often dramatically altering the outcome of a game. How do the different units of the AFC North match up?

Teams and fans alike are all hopeful this time of the year. Last season's problems are a bit out of focus and every off-season move looks like a winner. Flukes, not shortcomings, are highlighted. In this haze of information, delusions of playoffs appear lucid and logical.

The facts of the matter are that the Pittsburgh Steelers are the odds-on favorites to win the AFC North. Ask your local bookie if you don't believe me. The Steelers swept the division last season, capping it off by beating the Cleveland Browns for a third time.

At this point, the fluke line is brought forth as fans of various teams point out all the close games. First, almost all of the games in this era of parity are close. Second, beating a team three straight times is not a fluke. If you ask fans of the New England Patriots, twice should be enough. On this count, Steeler fans sound just like Browns fans.

The Browns, Cincinnati Bengals, and Baltimore Ravens are chasing the Steelers. What advantages might each of these three hopefuls count on in 2003?

If the Steelers have an Achilles heel, it's been special teams for the last few seasons. For 2002, we looked at the punting net, average punt return, field goal percentage, and average field position on kickoffs for returns and coverage.

1. Cleveland
2. Baltimore
3. Pittsburgh
4. Cincinnati

The strengths of the Browns special teams were punting net, punt returns, and average field position on kickoff coverage. Not only could the Browns score on special teams (3 returns for touchdowns), they fielded superb coverage on kickoffs and punts. The Ravens were ranked second in the division in every category except average field position after a kickoff return. The Bengals were just woeful, save average start after a kickoff for the offense.

Baltimore and Cleveland did very little during the off-season to upgrade special teams units that were already very good to excellent. In this case, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh were playing catch-up.

The Steelers made the most obvious moves to shore up special teams. First, they signed special teams coverage ace Clint Kriewaldt in free agency. Then the Steelers proceeded to draft almost exclusively for special teams, landing hard-hitting and speedy Troy Polamalu, the very intense Alonzo Jackson, a fullback J.T. Wall, and a player with great measurables who also loves to hit in Ike Taylor. Taylor is the key pick. Many talked about him playing in the dime defense, another glaring weakness in Pittsburgh, but his main value to the Steelers will initially be on punt returns. The media may have fallen in love with Antwaan Randle El, but even the elusive El could not bolster a horrible return game.

The Steelers may have closed some of the gap on special teams, but what about the Bengals? Apathy was probably Cincinnati's main problem on coverage. New head coach Marvin Lewis should help in that department and if Dennis Weathersby can recover, he will be a great weapon on special teams. So will Kelley Washington, who could see plenty of duty on punt and kickoff returns. But the Bengals could not afford to focus on special teams like the Steelers did and their improvement will be more measured as a result.

In sum, we expect the Steelers to leap over the Ravens in special teams thanks to the off-season activity and the better health of punter Josh Miller. The Browns will likely stay kings of the AFC North and a champion is not built in one off-season in Cincinnati.

Jim Russell

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