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Old 06-01-2009, 07:38 AM   #1
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Default Tomlin's Steelers driven to repeat in AFC North

06/01/09 01:08 AM
Tomlin's Steelers driven to repeat in AFC North
By Allen Wilson
News Sports Reporter

This is the second of an eight-part series on the offseason moves in the NFL. Today's installment covers the AFC North.

The last time the Pittsburgh Steelers went into a season as reigning Super Bowl champions it began with their quarterback almost getting killed in a motorcycle accident and ended with an 8-8 record, no playoff appearance and head coach Bill Cowher's resignation.

There won't be a Super Bowl hangover this time, not if third-year coach Mike Tomlin has anything to do with it. He wants the team to stay hungry, but he knows it will take more than that to defend its championship.

"It's not hunger that drives me, it's not hunger that needs to drive our football team," Tomlin said at the NFL owners meetings. "Hunger and thirst are things that can be quenched. We have to be a driven group, we have to seek greatness. I think driven is a more appropriate word, it's a word I tend to use with them as we prepare for '09."

The Steelers may not repeat as Super Bowl champs, but they are still the team to beat in the NFC North. The Ravens figure to be the primary competition again, provided they overcome some significant personnel and coaching losses.

Meanwhile, Cincinnati and Cleveland will battle to stay out of the division cellar.

If the Bengals' draft picks and free agent acquisitions pan out they could double last year's four-win output. New Browns coach Eric Mangini will have to work some magic to avoid another losing season.

Here's a review of the offseason moves in the AFC North:

Pittsburgh Steelers

Key gains: DT Evander Hood (Missouri), G Kraig Urbik (Wisconsin), WR Mike Wallace (Mississippi), WR Shaun McDonald (Lions), CB Keiwan Ratliff (Colts).

Key losses: ILB Larry Foote (Lions), QB Byron Leftwich (Buccaneers), WR Nate Washington (Titans), OT Marvel Smith (49ers), CB Bryant McFadden (Cardinals), S Anthony Smith (Packers).

Breakdown: Releasing Foote clears the way for 2007 first-round draft pick Lawrence Timmons to start. Hood and Urbik add depth on both lines. McDonald and Wallace give the Steelers more speed at receiver. Ratliff offsets McFadden's departure. Johnson is insurance for Daniel Sepulveda, who is returning from a major knee injury.

Key questions: Can Tomlin keep team focused on another title run? Will the offensive line, which yielded 49 sacks in 2008, protect QB Ben Roethlisberger better? Is Timmons ready to replace Foote, who started every game the past five years?

Baltimore Ravens

Key gains: C Matt Birk (Vikings), CB Domonique Foxworth (Falcons), OT Michael Oher (Mississippi), TE L.J. Smith (Eagles), DE/OLB Paul Kruger (Utah), CB Lardarius Webb (Nicholls State), ILB Jason Phillips (TCU).

Key losses: C Jason Brown (Rams), ILB Bart Scott (Jets), CB Chris McAllister (released), S Jim Leonhard (Jets).

Breakdown: The Ravens re-signed MLB Ray Lewis and franchised OLB Terrell Suggs, but couldn't afford to keep Scott. The draft and free agency brought pass-rushing depth and filled needs at cornerback, linebacker and tight end. Birk, a perennial Pro Bowler, and Oher were important O-line additions.

Key questions: What will QB Joe Flacco do for an encore? How much longer can Lewis play at an All-Pro level? Will the defense miss Scott and coordinator Rex Ryan, the Jets' new head coach?

Cincinnati Bengals

Key gains: WR Laveranues Coles (Jets), S Roy Williams (Cowboys), OT Andre Smith (Alabama), MLB Rey Maualuga (USC), DE Michael Johnson (Georgia Tech), TE Chase Coffman (Missouri), DT Tank Johnson (Cowboys), C Jonathan Luigs (Arkansas).

Key losses: WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh (Seahawks), OT Stacy Andrews (Eagles), OT Levi Jones (released), QB Ryan Fitzpatrick (Bills), C Eric Ghiaciuc (Chiefs).

Breakdown: QB Carson Palmer returns from elbow surgery, but one of his best receivers have either left via free agency (Houshmandzadeh) and another wants to leave (Chad Ochocinco). The hope is Coles will make up for Houshmandzadeh's absence. Smith and Maualuga headline a draft class full of boom-or-bust prospects. Williams adds physicality to the secondary.

Key questions: Will Palmer's repaired elbow hold up? Will Johnson's unhappiness affect his production? What will Coles contribute? How many rookies will have an immediate impact? Can Smith start at left tackle as a rookie?

Cleveland Browns

Key gains: C Alex Mack (California), WR Brian Robiske (Ohio State), WR Mohamed Massaquoi (Georgia), DE Kenyon Coleman (Jets), ILB Eric Barton (Jets), CB Hank Poteat (Jets), OT John St. Clair (Bears), TE Robert Royal (Bills).

Key losses: TE Kellen Winslow II (Buccaneers), S Sean Jones (Eagles), ILB Andra Davis (Broncos), OT Kevin Shaffer (Bears).

Breakdown: The Browns traded away a big weapon in Winslow. They were expected to move WR Braylon Edwards as well, but held on to him after drafting two wideouts. Millions were saved by trading down in the first round from No.5 to No.21 and getting Mack, the draft's top center. New coach Eric Mangini brought in several veteran Jets defenders who are familiar with his system.

Key questions: Will Brady Quinn, Derek Anderson or former Jet Jay Ratliff start at quarterback? Are Edwards trade rumors dead? Did the Browns do enough to help the NFL's 26th-ranked defense?

Next: AFC South.
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