The running game in the bruising AFC Central has been a perennial Steeler advantage. With injuries and age slowing Jerome Bettis, however, many thought the rest of the AFC North had passed the Steelers by. While Bettis would certainly be last in the division in terms of individual feature backs, the Steelers were by far the best rushing team in the North. Pittsburgh led the NFL in time of possession and the combination of Bettis and Amos Zereoue compares favorably to any rushing duo in the league.
However, the rest of the division has closed the gap considerably on this Pittsburgh advantage. The Browns made a point of picking RB William Green first in the 2002 draft and C Jeff Faine first in the 2003 draft. Faine may do more to help the Browns' anemic running game than anyone else. His play will be key if the Browns are to succeed on the ground, particularly against the Steelers and NT Casey Hampton.
In Baltimore, Jamal Lewis needs to stay healthy and hold onto the ball. The addition of RB Musa Smith should take some of the load off of Lewis and give the Ravens a backup plan if Lewis suffers another injury. The offensive line has gelled nicely, with the depth improved over last season. The Ravens have not rested on their laurels.
The Bengals, more than anything else, have to settle their passing game. But Cincinnati has not forgotten the running game along the way. They drafted offensive guard Eric Steinbach in the second round, while adding a couple of fullbacks to the roster. However, they lost a great fullback in Lorenzo Neal and there is no one behind Corey Dillon. Dillon seems fired up, but there is no telling when he will go into his next pouting stage. If anything at all happens to Dillon, the Bengals running game is sunk.
As pointed out last week, the Steelers focused on special teams. They did almost nothing to upgrade their running game. Impressive rookie OG Kendall Simmons should be even better this year, but he's already nursing an injury that will keep him away from the weight room for a spell. Bettis looks better than ever, but that does not make him impervious to injury. The Steelers had their eyes on RB Larry Johnson in the draft this year, which demonstrates the concern about the rushing attack. Unless Verron Haynes magically develops into a feature back, the Steelers running game will continue its slide.
Look for the Ravens to claim the AFC North rushing throne. There is not much of a passing game in Baltimore and the Ravens will ask everything from Lewis and Smith. The Steelers will slip to second, with the Bengals close behind. The Browns still have a ways to go and their offensive game plan does not really feature the running game.
If you are looking for potent passing attacks, don't look to the AFC North. Confusion at the quarterback position abounds. Jon Kitna is a stopgap in Cincinnati. The pick of Kyle Boller spells no confidence in Baltimore's Chris Redman. Cleveland has an embarrassment of riches at the position, but the team needs one leader to step up. Tommy Maddox sounds like a malcontent in Pittsburgh and his spotty history at the position does not engender a great deal of faith in his abilities.
In order to rank the passing games for 2002, we'll take the cheap way out and fall back on passer ratings.
1. Pittsburgh (84.6 for 13th in the NFL)
2. Cleveland (80.5 and 18th)
3. Baltimore (76.5 and 22nd)
4. Cincinnati (71.8 and 27th)
Both Baltimore and Cincinnati will have to wait a year or two to see substantial returns from their off-season moves to upgrade the passing attack. Stability should help the Bengals some, but the Ravens passing game could actually take a step backwards before it moves forwards.
Cleveland did not really address the passing game during the off-season, except to generate a full-blown quarterback controversy. That does not bode well for the Browns, who are playing with one of the best parts of their overall game. We think the answer is clear; Kelly Holcomb should be the starter. The Browns pretty much know by now what Tim Couch brings to the table. Holcomb, on the other hand, needs a chance to show what he can do week in and week out. Give Holcomb the month of September to see if his playoff magic is for real. The team definitely plays hard for him. If he fails, Couch is a great plan B. Continuity, off of success, is the key here.
If Cleveland did little, Pittsburgh did nothing to upgrade their passing game. They lost depth at the position in Kordell Stewart's release. They effectively have two new starting offensive tackles, breaking up one of the best offensive lines in football. The signing of TE Jay Riemersma is intriguing, but no one really believes that the Steelers are going to suddenly start chucking the ball to the tight end. Riemersma is not Todd Heap. The receiving core might be even better this year, with Randle El adjusting to the switch from quarterback to wide receiver. However, Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward had career years last season. You don't have career years every year. Finally, no one is sure if Maddox is for real. If the running game falters, the Steelers offense could easily crumble like a house of cards.
Luckily for the Steelers, the offenses in Cincinnati and Baltimore are not really going anywhere, yet. Cleveland will be the one to watch. The Browns have the potential to be a scoring machine, if Holcomb is at the helm fulltime. We think Kelly will get there, somehow, and the Browns passing attack will emerge as the top dog in the division.