View Full Version : Summer two-a-days: AFC North, NFC South

07-15-2009, 07:27 PM
Summer two-a-days: AFC North, NFC South
by Peter Schrager
Peter Schrager is a frequent contributor for FOXSports.com. You can e-mail him at PeterSchrager@gmail.com.
Updated: July 15, 2009, 1:23 PM EDT

In our exciting summer series, Peter Schrager takes on five key questions per division.

Ah, early July. In the world of NFL fandom, it's pure purgatory. The Draft and OTAs are in the rearview mirror, yet summer camps and actual preseason action are still a few weeks away. So you just hold your tongue and watch the calendar, feign interest in things like baseball and your family, but you're really just thinking football.

Here are our final installments of our series tackling five early summer questions for each NFL division.

Today's two-a-days: AFC North | NFC South

AFC North

1. The Super Bowl champion Steelers got by with a less-than-stellar ground game in '08. What's in store for the Pittsburgh rush attack in '09?

When you've got Ben Roethlisberger, two star receivers, a reliable tight end and the best defense in the league, your running game can slack here and there without costing you victories. The Steelers' running game, of course, did more than just "slack here and there" last season.

It stunk.

Pittsburgh finished an uncharacteristic 23rd in the league in rushing in 2008, averaging just under 106 rushing yards per game. Willie Parker, who at times made you think his nickname should have been "Slow and Banged Up" instead of "Fast," poked and prodded along through bouts of injuries all season, while rookie Rashard Mendenhall had his year ended prematurely with a shoulder injury vs. Baltimore. No other back made much of an impact. And then there was that offensive line. Oh, boy.

Still, there were the Steelers on Feb. 1 in Tampa hoisting their second Lombardi Trophy in four years.

The Pittsburgh running game should be better in '09. The offensive line, as porous as it was Weeks 1 through 17, caught fire in the postseason and ended up being better than average when it mattered. Though Marvel Smith signed an offseason deal with San Francisco, the Steelers brought back tackles Willie Colon and Trai Essex with free-agent deals. Guard Chris Kemoeatu re-signed as well. Most importantly, the team signed tackle Max Starks to a long-term deal.

As for the running backs? It should be a different story this season. Parker's healthy. Entering the final year of his contract (yes, this matters), the seven-year veteran has been attacking his offseason training regimen like he never has before. After averaging a career-low 3.8 yards per carry last season, he's gone back to the callisthenic-heavy workouts he committed to during his first few years in the league. "I'm getting that speed back like I had two or three years ago," Parker told Scott Brown of the Tribune Review at Steelers camp last month. "I'm faster than I've been."

Complementing Parker will be a healthy and hungry Mendenhall. Whereas fellow many of his fellow '08 rookie RBs burst onto the scene last year, Mendnhall was a non-factor because of the injury. Now fully recovered, he is ready to contribute.

The Steelers have a long tradition of hard-nosed football anchored by a punishing run game and a suffocating defense. They found a way to win without the run game last season. They shouldn't have to do that in '09.

Everyone's got the Patriots as the favorites in the AFC this season. With a dominant defense returning most of its starters and a re-charged rushing attack, the Steelers are just as dangerous as New England. They just might not be as pretty. (Someone needs to tell this writer that cheating isn't "pretty". - mesa)

Well, no one said it's a beauty contest.

2. The Ravens wideouts and tight ends appear to be a mix of banged up and inexperienced. What's the story there?

If the Redskins receivers of the '80s were "The Posse" and the late-'80s Broncos wideouts were "The Three Amigos," the '09 Ravens receivers and tight ends are some twisted combination of "M*A*S*H" and "Hannah Montana." They're either hurt, injury-prone or Disney Channel young.

Yes, despite being mentioned in every Anquan Boldin trade rumor before the draft and being pegged to a host of first-round caliber wide receivers with the 23rd overall pick in April, the Ravens enter the '09 season with a mediocre stable of targets for quarterback Joe Flacco. Again.

It's not like these guys can't play; they certainly can. It's just that ... well, they're not exactly healthy. Or good. Or experienced.

Case in point: Throughout the Ravens' offseason minicamps, the team's top two receivers Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams saw only limited action because of nagging injuries.

Veteran Derrick Mason, who is 35, announced that he is retiring in an interview with the sports blog jocklife.com. He wanted a new deal and an extension and was coming off pretty serious offseason surgery. Mason told the Web site, "After 12 years, I have seen it all and done it all. Right now, I am content with the decision I am making. All good things come to an end, and I am ready to see what else life has to offer."

So that leaves Clayton and Williams two nice enough No. 2 or 3 options as the go-to guys in Baltimore? Blech.

The team's top two tight ends, Todd Heap and L.J. Smith, weren't much busier at Ravens camp. Both players, who have been in and out of starting lineups over the past few seasons because of a sampling of ailments, also were limited because of injuries.

The fourth, fifth and sixth options at wideout return man Yamon Figurs, free agent pickup Kelley Washington and second-year man Marcus Smith have yet to prove any semblance of starting wideout capabilities.

Fortunately for Baltimore, they have a fantastic young quarterback, one of the best rushing attacks in the game, and a strong offensive line. The additions of rookie Michael Oher and the offseason signing of Matt Birk, a six-time Pro Bowl center, only makes that unit stronger. The defense even without coordinator Rex Ryan, linebacker Bart Scott and safety Jim Leonhard is still one of the very best in the league.

Baltimore could very well give the Steelers a run for their money in the AFC North this season. I'm just concerned about the receivers and tight ends.

3. Is Ravens rookie Michael Oher ready to contribute right away?

Amazing Grace
Michael Oher Kriegel: From living on the streets to a coveted prospect in the NFL draft, Michael Oher's life gives us all a reason to cheer.

When Oher, an expected top 10 pick, slipped all the way to 23rd, the word at Radio City Music Hall was that he wasn't capable of playing right away. As dominant as he was in college at Ole Miss, Oher wasn't ready for the complexities of the NFL. He'd need some time to learn and adjust.

Thus far, Oher is proving his critics and 22 NFL teams wrong. The subject of Michael Lewis' The Blind Side has been a star in Ravens camp. Because of injuries to Oneil Cousins and Adam Terry, Oher has been serving as the first-team right tackle. He made a concerted effort to meet with coaches and teammates before Ravens camp and came prepared and focused. He learned the playbook and excelled with the first-team offense. He looks ready for Week 1.

Oher, however, won't be a typical under-the-radar rookie lineman. He's going to get his publicity on and off the field. Whereas the film version of Lewis' Moneyball stalls and hiccups, the big screen version of Oher's story just wrapped up 47 days of filming. Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw play Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy and there are cameos by Houston Nutt, Nick Saban, Lou Holtz, Phil Fulmer and Ed Orgeron. The movie will hit theaters in November prime time for some late-season Ravens football.

Oher is played by up-and-coming actor Quinton Aaron. The Ravens rookie does not appear in the film.

He was too busy studying another kind of film this summer game tape.

07-15-2009, 07:28 PM
4. Who the heck is Brian Daboll and what can he do for the anemic Cleveland Browns offense?

A summer ago, the Browns were all the rage. They were coming off an impressive 10-6 season, featured 2007 Pro Bowlers at quarterback, receiver, left tackle and tight end, and were expected to make a run at the AFC North title. The defense, with Shaun Rodgers clogging the middle, was supposed to be much improved.

Fast forward 12 months and the Browns have a new head coach, GM, defensive coordinator and offensive coordinator. They also don't have nearly the same expectations for '09.

How could they after the way 2008 turned out?

That explosive offense was a nightmare in '08. Though there were highlights (a win vs. the previously unbeaten Giants on Monday Night Football, ummm, well, that's it, really), the season ended with ineptitude and embarrassment. The Browns finished the '08 campaign with a bizarre six-game stretch in which they didn't score a single offensive touchdown. Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson each started games. So did Ken Dorsey and Bruce Gradkowski. In the season finale against Pittsburgh, the Browns had 126 yards of total offense. Gradkowski threw for a mere 26 yards in the 31-0 loss ... to a team resting its starters throughout the second half.

Eric Mangini's in as the new head coach, and with him comes Brian Daboll as the offensive coordinator. Kellen Winslow's gone, Cleveland's now entering the third year of a never-ending quarterback controversy between Anderson and Quinn, and the receivers not named Braylon Edwards are a bunch of no-names. Good luck, sir.

So who is Daboll? He actually has an eerily similar career track as Mangini. He started his coaching career as a "restricted volunteer" at William & Mary, then bounced to Michigan State where he served as a graduate assistant. After serving some time as a defensive assistant in New England, he transitioned to the offensive side of the ball under Charlie Weis. He then joined Mangini in New York, where he coached the quarterbacks. Small college, big college, pro, defense, offense — in 12 years, Daboll's seen, learned and taught a lot. In his decade of pro coaching experience, he's learned from Weis, Bill Callahan, Brian Schottenheimer, and worked with Josh McDaniels.

"Our offense is kind of a conglomeration of a lot of different things. They are the things that we believe in as coaches on this staff to make up the Browns offense," Daboll told The Morning Journal last week.

Yep, he even sounds like Mangini. Vague and close to the cuff.

As for whether it will be Quinn or Anderson in Week 1 vs. the Vikings? We might not know the answer to that one until the day before.

5. Do the Bengals have the most entertaining mix of characters on any one NFL team?


And you will get to know all of them this summer. In what should be the most entertaining HBO series since "The Sopranos," the guys at NFL Films have set their sights on the most eclectic cast of characters in the NFL and will focus on the Bengals for this year's season of "Hard Knocks."

The program, which gives fans an inside look at the training camp and preseason process, is one of the best pieces of sports television you'll ever see. Players getting cut by "The Turk," coaches in the film room and off-day retreats to the mall — it's everything you've ever wondered about the NFL preseason. And with that cast of characters in Cincy? Wow.

The Bengals have lots of great subplots this August: rookies Andre Smith and Rey Maualuga both adjusting to the NFL and new positions (Smith at right tackle, Maualuga at the SAM linebacker spot), Chris Henry emerging from a series of suspensions, Carson Palmer returning from yet another devastating season-ending injury, former Cowboys Tank Johnson and Roy Williams fighting to earn starting spots on the Bengals D and Laveranues Coles proving he's got some good football left in the tank.

If you're not an HBO person, there's Dhani Jones, the star of Travel Channel's "Dhani Tackles the Globe." Jones is using the hiatus between minicamp and training camp to film episodes.

If you're not into either of those shows, there's the one starring Chad Ochocinco all summer long. In minicamp, No. 85 celebrated a touchdown by scaling a wall and giving love to the fans in attendance. When he's not celebrating minicamp scores, he's on Twitter. When he's not on Twitter, he's up to something. Love it or hate it, Ochocinco is always on.

That sure is a lot of "entertainment" for one team. Alas, "entertainment" doesn't always equal wins.

(See link at top of the article for the NFC south - mesa)

Galax Steeler
07-16-2009, 03:44 AM
It is good to hear that our running game should improve this year. It can't be no worse then last hopefully Parker and Mendenhall will step up this year and take some pressure off of Ben.

07-16-2009, 10:23 AM
I hope that our offense is better as a whole this year and we get back to our 2007 form. That would compliment our defense greatly and with a better return game and punting game with Sepulveda returning we would have a great chance of a repeat.

07-16-2009, 11:00 AM
Tomlin is priming this team for a repeat...

We are looking good .....

28 days till kick off......

Steely McSmash
07-16-2009, 11:27 AM
Pretty good write-up for a national writer. He actually looked at how the team did last year!

One minor point:

the seven-year veteran has been attacking his offseason training regimen like he never has before.

During the minicamp Willie was quoted as saying that he didn't run in the offseason at all and worked out "you know.. to keep the beach body" Basically he was letting himself heal up.