The Ravens and Steelers have been slugging it out at the top of this division for so long that their hard-hitting defensive rivalry may soon become a hard-hitting canasta rivalry.
Both the Ravens and Steelers are ancient on defense, but neither has slipped far enough to allow the Bengals or Browns to challenge. The Bengals made big strides last year but were still 0-4 against the Hammer Brothers at the top of the division. The Browns have a new owner and a rookie quarterback who is also the second-oldest starting quarterback in the division. But then, maybe the secret to beating the Ravens and Steelers is to fight age with age.
Tweet-sized Preview: Rice, rinse, repeat. Results may vary in January.
Biggest Change from 2011: The Jersey Boys’ offense is a year older and a lot peppier: A new no-huddle offense will keep opponents from keying in on Ray Rice (a good thing), and force Joe Flacco to do more than launch 50-yard bombs (jury still deliberating). Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are also a year older, which is a problem, as they helped defend Fort McHenry in the War of 1812. Otherwise, the team that finished a dropped pass and missed field goal from the Super Bowl stayed the course during the offseason. They even signed Jacoby Jones to replace Lee Evans as the guy who drops the pass.
Overblown Story: Bryant McKinnie’s weight and financial problems were the source of much early camp tongue-clucking, but the Ravens knew they were getting a high-risk player when the Vikings suddenly made the former All-Pro available last summer. Rookie Kelechi Osemele may make McKinnie expendable anyway; when camp broke, Osemele and Michael Oher were the starters at tackle.
Undersold Story: The Ravens must not only replace injured pass rusher Terrell Suggs, the third of the Lewis-Reed Musketeers, but longtime starter Jarret Johnson, who fell somewhere between D’Artagnan and that Agent Coulson guy from “The Avengers” in terms of importance. Fourth-year linebacker Paul Kruger is the favorite to step into Johnson’s role, with rookie Courtney Upshaw expected to provide some of the pass rush Suggs used to generate. There will definitely be a drop-off, but the Ravens need to make sure it isn't too steep.
Telling Stat: Eighty percent of Ravens running plays came from a two-back formation last year, usually some variation of I-formation. Two-back sets are going the way of VHS tapes everywhere, and the new no-huddle initiative may relegate them to the attic in Baltimore, as well.
Breakout Player: LaQuan Williams, wide receiver. Williams stuck with the Ravens as an undrafted rookie in 2011 because of his special-teams ability. He had a phenomenal training camp this year and has a chance to stick as the Ravens’ third receiver this season.
Bottom Line: An up-tempo offense and a defense with more pre-snap motion will allow the Ravens to do what they always do -- reach the playoffs, then stumble -- much more frenetically. PREDICTION: 11-5.
Tweet-sized Preview: Newfound emphasis on keeping Ben Roethlisberger healthy has arrived about 300 sacks too late.
Biggest Change from 2011: Offensive coordinator Todd Haley brings a two-back, max-protection philosophy that is a radical departure from Bruce Arians’ one-back offense. Haley’s ranting prophet-of-doom personality has not caused any conflicts with Big Ben … yet. Rookies David DeCastro and Mike Adams will upgrade an offensive line that formerly consisted of Maurkice Pouncey and four traffic barrels, but with DeCastro hurt and Adams still learning, Roethlisberger will have to spend another year pump-faking in a collapsible pocket.
Overblown Story: Mike Wallace’s holdout and Hines Ward’s retirement made the Steelers appear thin at the start of camp. Wallace finally showed up Tuesday, but opponents felt that Antonio Brown was the more dangerous all-around receiver, anyway. The Steelers may have the fastest receiving corps in the NFL. Now all Roethlisberger needs (as usual) is time to get them the ball.
Undersold Story: The defense is getting really, really old. Casey Hampton turns 35 in September. Brett Keisel turns 34 at about the same time. James Harrison is 34. Ryan Clark turns 33 soon. Ike Taylor is 32. The team got younger by replacing James Farrior with Larry Foote, but Foote is 32. There are some youngsters in the pipeline like Ziggy Hood, Jason Worilds, Cameron Heyward and rookie Sam Spence, but newcomers won’t be able to fill every hole in the Grey Curtain.
Telling Stat: Haley’s Chiefs led the NFL in max-protect schemes, using seven players as pass blockers on 24 percent of pass plays, even with starter Matt Cassel (a good scrambler) under center. The Steelers only went max-protect 8 percent of the time last season.
Breakout Player: Isaac Redman, running back. Redman, a 230-pounder with moves, took over for injured Rashard Mendenhall late last season and rushed for 121 yards in the playoff loss to the Broncos. Mendenhall is still recovering from his ACL tear, and while he's suddenly way ahead of schedule, there should be ample carries for a very old-fashioned Steelers-style back. Fantasy football guys: Forget about Redman as a “sleeper.” Everyone in your league knows who he is.
Bottom Line: Injuries were already piling up for Big Ben during camp. After a “little” rotator cuff tear and a “minor” ankle sprain, what’s next? An “itty-bitty coma?” Big Ben plowed through the injuries as usual, but with an offensive line in transition and a defense that orders off the early bird menu, the Steelers are prime candidates for a second-half fade. PREDICTION: 10-6.
Tweet-sized Preview: Red Rifle is locked, loaded and searching for a second target that isn’t Green.
Biggest Change from 2011: Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis and cornerback Terence Newman were budget-friendly acquisitions at positions of need. Whether either is a true upgrade is not certain. A deep draft class, led by cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and guard Kevin Zeitler, will spackle some other roster holes.
Overblown Story: The Bengals faced weekly blackouts last season despite making the playoffs, but people in the business know that sales lag behind performance by at least a year. The Bengals did little things to boost ticket sales this year, like holding training camp at Paul Brown Stadium. But the best way to spur ticket sales is sustain success. If they keep winning, the fans will return.
Undersold Story: They say genius skips a generation. If so, Katie Blackburn’s increased role as Bengals executive vice president is good news for the Bengals. The team needs the kind of leadership provided by Blackburn’s grandfather, the legendary Paul Brown, as opposed to her father, befuddled team owner Mike Brown. Blackburn said during camp that the team is “committed to changing the outcome of the football season with a Super Bowl championship” -- strong words from a franchise that often seems downright noncommittal.
Telling Stat: Andy Dalton was just 17-of-49 on deep passes (15 or more yards in the air) along the sidelines, but 11-of-16 on deep passes over the middle. Although Red Rifle doesn’t like it when people dwell on his arm strength, the numbers show that he can launch jump balls to A.J. Green but lacks the zip he needs for sideline throws.
Breakout Player: Andrew Hawkins, wide receiver. The Bengals aren't sure who their second receiver will be: It could be Mohamed Sanu, Armon Binns or possibly Cris Collinsworth. But Hawkins is all but certain to be the slot receiver and top return man. The 5-foot-7 Hawkins is a natural in the slot: tiny, lightning-quick and dangerous in the open field.
Bottom Line: The Bengals used comebacks and photo finishes to reach the playoffs last year, but they went 0-4 against the Ravens and Steelers and gained little ground on the division contenders. They need to step sideways before they are ready to step forward. PREDICTION: 8-8.
Tweet-sized Preview: Two first-round picks, including a new QB, have the Browns excited about the future. (This Tweet was first published in 2008.)
Biggest Change from 2011: Rookies Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden give the Browns an all-new backfield, though things are never that easy in Cleveland. Richardson missed most of camp with a knee injury that bothered him throughout the offseason, while Weeden, a 28-year-old who is seven weeks older than league MVP Aaron Rodgers, has played like a rookie since he was handed the starting job.
Overblown Story: Jimmy Haslam, who bought the team at the start of camp, has said he will be a hands-on owner. That prompted huzzahs from Browns fans tired of the invisible Randy Lerner and “uh-oh’s” from fans of just about every team with a hands-on owner. Even a would-be Steinbrenner can only do so much in his first few months, however. This is still a Mike Holmgren team, and Haslam’s impact probably won’t be felt until at least next offseason.
Undersold Story: Weeden’s age. A team that has spent a decade lurching from one quarterback controversy to another should have thought twice about investing in a “prospect” who turns 30 next October. The prevailing logic is that Weeden’s age won’t matter if he can give the Browns six good years and play until he is 34, but most quarterbacks don’t last until 34, folks. For example, Tim Couch turned 35 last month. Remember him? Weeden could be an unprecedented exception, or he could be another ticket on a quarterback carousel that turned from Couch to Kelly Holcomb to Charlie Frye to Derek Anderson to Brady Quinn to Colt McCoy, with no signs of greatness while it has spun.
Telling Stat: Browns receivers dropped a total of 43 passes, eight more than any other team. Greg Little dropped 12 passes, but Montario Hardesty’s six drops were more impressive because a) they came on just 21 passes, and b) his average dropped pass traveled less than two yards down the field. Both were in peak pass-dropping form in preseason, though there is still reason to be optimistic about one of them (see below).
Breakout Player: Greg Little, wide receiver. Yes, the ball often hits Little’s hands and ricochets like a marble off a glass table. But lots of rookies battle the dropsies, and Little has great speed and a knack for getting open. If Weeden can get him the ball and he can hold onto it more consistently, Little has 1,000-yard potential.
Bottom Line: The Browns suffered through an awful camp: injuries to Richardson and others (plus an OTA injury to defensive tackle Phil Taylor), a suspension for cornerback Joe Haden and a sham quarterback battle that will haunt the team if Weeden’s Big 12 success turns out to have been a man-among-boys mirage. Haslam may soon be wondering what he got himself into. PREDICTION: 5-11.
All stats provided by Football Outsiders.