AFC North and South Previews

Posted: 09/09/2017 by levcohen in Football

With the season starting tomorrow (I know it started Thursday, but I don’t think it can have really started until the first Sunday), I’ve run out of time for my division previews. This has happened before. Luckily, I already wrote about three of the eight teams in these two divisions. The Browns and Titans were two of my “over” teams, and the Colts were one of my “under” teams. So I’m previewing two divisions but really only five teams today. That’s doable. I’ll start with the AFC North,

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5): The Steelers have to like what they saw on Thursday Night Football, because if New England’s decline is real (it probably isn’t), they’re the the new AFC favorites. Barring a significant injury, I have no doubt that Pittsburgh’s going to have an elite offense. The weapons Ben Roethlisberger has at his disposal are ridiculous. Antonio Brown is, at worst, the fourth best receiver in the NFL (I’d take him first but would listen to Julio Jones, Odell Beckham and A.J. Green arguments). He’s not tall (5’10”), but he’s the best route-runner in the NFL, and I don’t think it’s particularly close. In a down year last season, he posted 1,284 yards and 12 TDs. In the last four years, he’s averaged 120 catches for 1,579 yards and 11 scores. The Steelers also now have Martavis Bryant again. Bryant, who was suspended for the entire 2016 season for smoking weed, was by all accounts a beast this preseason. That’s not a surprise, because in 21 games he’s averaged 17.3 yards per catch and racked up 1,314 yards and 14 scores. He is big (6’4″), and he’s also fast (4.27 40-yard dash). He’s one of the most terrifying deep threats in the league, especially since teams won’t be able to consistently give safety help over the top against him (see: Brown, Antonio). Even scarier for the Steelers? The fact that they also have Le’Veon Bell, the best all-around running back in football. Despite missing four games last season, he ran for 1,268 yards and caught 75 balls for 616 yards, making him Pittsburgh’s second leading receiver. He can line up all over the field, and he can make anyone miss. He’s known for his unique running style, for the fact that it almost looks like he’s moving in slow motion as he waits for the hole to open up before exploding through that hole at the exact right moment. He’s a joy to watch and, I’m sure, a horror to play against. And guess what? The Steelers also have a great offensive line. Maurkice Pouncey is a great center. David DeCastro is an All-Pro guard, and Ramon Foster graded out even better (87.9). And Alejandro Villanueva and Marcus Gilbert both graded out as well above-average tackles last season. The offense is going to be great. Heck, even backup running back James Connor, a third round pick this year, looks good. My one nitpick is that Ben Roethlisberger has been very shaky on the road over the last few years. That’s not great, but a few road stinkers aren’t going to keep the Steelers from winning this division easily.

The defense won’t, either. It has been solid over the last few years, finishing 11th in DVOA in 2015 and 11th again last season. It’ll be solid against this year, as it returns most of its most important players. Middle linebacker Ryan Shazier is back. Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are back. Bud Dupree is back. All of those guys are in their primes. And first round pick T.J. Watt (brother of J.J.) looks like he’s going to be a pass-rushing force. It’s a good thing that the pass-rush is strong, because the secondary is probably the team’s weakest unit. There’s a reason they just signed Joe Haden, who’s nowhere near as good as he used to be. It’s hard for me to get super worried about the secondary, though, since the front seven is so good and since the offense is so good. It’s a lot easier to play defense when your offense is putting up points every possession. The Steelers will be just fine, and I think I may even be being a little bit conservative by giving them 11 wins. They have an easy schedule, they have the best skill-position players in football by far, and they have a solid defense. Smooth sailing ahead.

2. Cincinnati Bengals (9-7): The Bengals went 6-9-1 last year, the first time they were worse than 9-7 since 2010. But they were still a solid team, posting a +10 point differential. Say what you want about Marvin Lewis (he’s never won a playoff game despite being the head coach since 2003), but his teams are generally pretty good. I see more of the same coming this year for a team that returns most of its important players and has a really soft schedule. Andy Dalton is not a great quarterback, but he doesn’t deserve all of the criticism he gets. I actually think he’s pretty good. He also has better weapons this year than he did last season, when the Bengals couldn’t rebound from the losses of second and third receivers Marvin Jones (to the Lions) and Mohamed Sanu (to the Falcons) or the injuries to Tyler Eifert (played just eight games) and A.J. Green (10). Green and Eifert are healthy now, and they’re also joined by first and second round picks John Ross and Joe Mixon. Ross is the fastest player in football — he ran a 4.22 40. He’ll give the Bengals a deep threat across from Green, which should open the field up for the superstar receiver. And Mixon, character issues (and there are a lot of character issues) aside, is a supremely talented running back who gives the Bengals a third option out of the backfield along with plodder Jeremy Hill and pass-catcher Giovani Bernard. The fact that the Bengals finished 11th in offensive DVOA last year despite all the injuries and losses was impressive. They also lost two All-Pro caliber linemen after 2015 (Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler) and didn’t really replace them. The line was a dumpster fire last year and remains a concern, but the hope is that 2015 first and second round picks Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher have improved enough to stabilize things a little bit.

I actually think the offense will be really good. I’m not so sure about the defense, which is very similar to the one that finished 17th in DVOA last season. Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones are both suspended to start the season (surprise, surprise). Geno Atkins is still an elite lineman, but he and the entire defensive line are aging. Atkins is 29, Carlos Dunlap is 28, Michael Johnson is 30, and Pat Sims is nearly 32. The Bengals have tried to shore up their depth at the position with Jordan Willis (third round pick), Chris Smith (acquired in a trade with the Jags), and Ryan Glasgow (fourth round pick), but I’m not sure it’ll be enough to give the starters the rest that they need. The linebacker group looks a lot worse without Burfict than it does with him, so I hope Burfict will find a way to stay on the field without being suspended. I’m skeptical. And the secondary is already shaken up, with both starting safeties likely to miss Week 1. I just don’t think the defense has much upside. We’ve seen it before, and it’s consistently declined over the last few years. It still has the personnel to be mediocre, and the Bengals will have a winning season, but I don’t see 11 or 12 win upside.

3. Baltimore Ravens (8-8): The recipe for success for this Ravens team is obvious. Joe Flacco needs to get and stay healthy behind a shaky (outside of Ronnie Stanley and Marshal Yanda) line and must lead the offense to at least mediocrity. And the defense and special teams have to dominate. In short, they need to follow the path the Ravens’ Super Bowl team took. I think it’s possible. The special teams part of the equation is a given. Over the past five years, the Ravens have finished first, third, second, first, and fourth in ST DVOA. They have the best kicker in football (if not in football history) in Justin Tucker. They have good coverage teams. They don’t quite have the same return game Jacoby Jones once gave them, but they should be fine. The defense is also good, coming off of a year in which they finished sixth in DVOA. C.J. Mosley’s an All-Pro linebacker. Terrell Suggs still has the ability to make big plays. Jimmy Smith is a good corner, and the Eric Weddle-Tony Jefferson combination at safety is one of the best pairings in football. If anything, though, I think the defense probably played a bit better than it should have last year. As I’ve written before, defensive performances tend to oscillate a lot from year to year; for example, the Ravens finished 20th in DVOA in 2015 and sixth last year. I think a downturn is likely, as I just don’t think this defense matches up talent-wise with the cream of the crop (Giants, Seahawks, Broncos, Texans, Vikings) or even the second tier (Panthers, Eagles, Cardinals, Jaguars). It’ll be a mediocre defense.

The offense is vanilla. We know what Flacco, almost 33, is at this point: a big-armed quarterback who makes some throws that will awe you but is far too inconsistent to carry an offense and has gotten banged up over the last few years behind a shaky line. Mike Wallace and Jeremy Maclin lead a solid-but-unspectacular receiver group. The Ravens don’t have a reliable tight end, but they did add pass-catching running back Danny Woodhead, who should serve as a safety valve for Flacco. The run game, led by Terrance West, is uninspiring, and the season-ending knee injury to second-year RB Kenneth Dixon hurts. There’s little reason to think that the offense will take a step back, but there’s also little reason to expect their second above-average offensive season in the last five years. This feels like an 8-8 roster.

4. Cleveland Browns (6-10): Again, I wrote about the Browns in the “over” post I linked to above. I don’t have much to add, except that I’m much less sure of this than I was when I wrote that, because Myles Garrett now has a high ankle sprain, which is a bummer and will really hurt Cleveland’s defense. Oh well. I’m sticking with more than 4.5 wins for Cleveland.

And the South…

1. Tennessee Titans (10-6): I wrote about the Titans in the “over” post I linked to above. I’m really interested to see what happens in the Oakland-Tennessee game tomorrow. It should be one of the best games of the day.

2. Houston Texans (8-8): A lot of people like the Texans to win this division. I don’t, largely because the offense is just so scary, and not in a good way. I know Brock Osweiler is gone, and I know a first round pick was spent on Deshaun Watson, but Watson isn’t this team’s starting quarterback — Tom Savage is. That worries me, both Tom Savage is not a good quarterback. We already know how this is going to go: Savage will start a few games, he won’t be great, and then Watson will come in. But while most people expect Watson to be an immediate upgrade, I’m not so sure. Rookie quarterbacks haven’t had great recent histories, and that’s especially true of rookie quarterbacks playing behind bad lines without good run games. Lamar Miller is a solid running back, but he was a bit of a disappointment in his first year in Houston. Coming off seasons of 5.1 and 4.5 yards per carry in Miami, he averaged just 4.0 yards per tote in his debut season in Houston. He seemed to wear down over time, which explains the selection of D’Onta Foreman in the third round of the draft. The problem is that the line isn’t good, and it’s tough for even good running backs to transcend a bad line against stacked boxes. Basically, defenses know they have to stop two things to shut down Houston’s offense: the run game and DeAndre Hopkins. After Hopkins was dominant in 2015, defenses got the best of him last year and may continue to do so as the Texans put out complete non-factors on the other side of the field (Will Fuller, the normal #2 receiver, broke his collarbone in preseason practice). The offense is going to be really bad again.

The defense, on the other hand, is one of the best in football. They finished ninth in DVOA last year without J.J. Watt. Watt is back now. Need I say more? Probably not, but I will anyway. I’m unsure of how Watt will hold up over the course of the season, because back injuries are tricky things. But the Texans have a few other good defensive players. They have three linebackers who were second-team All-Pro players last year: Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, and Benardrick McKinney. Those three guys and stud corner A.J. Bouye (now a Jacksonville Jaguar) were the core of the defense last year. Losing Bouye hurts, but they have a ready-made replacement in Kevin Johnson, who was on the verge of being a star before getting hurt last year (his injury, in fact, was what catapulted Bouye to stardom). And Watt totally transforms the defense.

It might seem strange to predict that a 9-7 team that improved at QB (say what you want about Savage, but he’s better than Brock) and added J.J. Watt will regress, but it’s worth remembering that the Texans were unbelievably lucky to get to 9-7. Their -49 point differential was better than only the Jets’, Browns’, and Jags’ PDs last season. So 8-8 feels fair, if not a bit optimistic.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars (6-10): Poor Jacksonville. No matter how much you like Leonard Fournette, Allen Robinson, or the entire defense, it’s impossible to overlook the quarterback situation. So I will start with the quarterback situation, which is the worst in the league because not only is Blake Bortles a bad quarterback but his backup is neither young nor intriguing. He’s Chad Henne, a 32-year-old who hasn’t thrown a pass since 2014 and who has thrown more picks (63) than TDs (58) in his career. That’s bad. Bortles has seven career first quarter touchdowns and 29 career fourth quarter touchdowns. That’s not because he’s clutch but because he’s the king of garbage time. When the game’s close, it’s obvious that Bortles is bad at football. Last year, he made Allen Robinson, clearly a talented receiver, look like crap. He clearly has no confidence in himself, and it shows. Fournette, one of the most hyped running backs in a long time, will help the offense, but an offense can only be so good without a competent quarterback.

The reason I expect the Jags to improve from three to six wins is that I’m very bullish on the defense. This is a young defense that finished 12th in DVOA last year thanks largely to performances from rookies Jalen Ramsey (who already looks like one of the best corners in the league) and Yannick Ngakoue. Those two guys will be even better this year, as will second year linebacker Myles Jack. Paul Posluszny, at 32 the old guy on this defense, is still a very effective middle linebacker. Telvin Smith, now in his fourth season, is developing into a star at linebacker. But the biggest reason to love this defense this year is that it added three plus-plus pieces. I’ve already talked about Bouye, who posted an elite 90.7 PFF rating last year. Calais Campbell is a two time All-Pro who was a centerpiece of Arizona’s dominant defenses of the last few years. He’s 6’8″, has had at least five sacks in eight consecutive seasons, and is usually among the league leaders in stuffs. His PFF rating was 93.0 last year and has been above 85.0 six times in a row. He’s the definition of an elite defensive lineman. And safety Barry Church was quietly one of the keys to Dallas’s defensive success last year. His PFF rating was 85.9. That’s three elite defensive pieces added to an already-exciting young defense. I wouldn’t be shocked if this unit ends the year as one of the two or three best in football, even though the offense’s ineptitude will put a tremendous amount of pressure on the defense. The Texans and Jags are in similar situations, and I could just as easily have picked each team to go 7-9, but the Texans have had three straight winning seasons while the Jags have… not, so I decided to give Houston the benefit of the doubt.

4. Indianapolis Colts (5-11): I wrote about the Colts in the “under” post I linked to above. If Andrew Luck plays more than, say, 12 games, Indy will win more than five games. But we still don’t know how many games he’s going to miss, and I’m skeptical that he’ll be able to stay on the field for long without re-injuring himself. And without Luck, the Colts have nothing.

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