Ah, the AFC North. One of the league’s most intriguing divisions, and it’s poised to be the AFC’s most competitive in 2014.
The Baltimore Ravens, the Cincinnati Bengals and the Pittsburgh Steelers are all serious candidates to win the division, and it’s entirely possible any of those teams wins. However, in a division so close I’m going to pick the team with the best quarterback, and that’s Pittsburgh.
Last year started off bad for Pittsburgh as they fell to 0-4 early. However, following their porous start, no team in the AFC had a better end to the season than Pittsburgh. For all intents and purposes, the Steelers were one Antonio Brown foot away from making the post season as the AFC’s sixth seed.
Some good news for people in Pittsburgh is that the defense has improved from last year, as it’s gotten faster. Rookie Ryan Shazier is a serious Rookie of the Year candidate, and he’s been turning heads during the preseason. NBC.com reported Shazier will start the season opener for Pittsburgh, and he’s exactly what the defense needs. Shazier will be playing with incredibly talented players. Shazier joins a linebacking core that already boasts names like Lawrence Timmons, Jarvis Jones and Jason Worilds. Jones wasn’t great last year, but many expect him to be better in year two. The rather new look linebacking group boasts a lot of speed, especially off the edge.
In the defensive backfield it’s a rather routine, yet reliable group of players. Troy Polamalu is back for another season, as is Ike Taylor. Polamalu is the heart of the defense and he’s a quiet leader that is instrumental in the defense’s success. Mike Mitchell is also part of that unit, and he’s an underrated player that is plenty dynamic. While Ike Taylor has lost a step, he’s still a confident, fast vet. The losses on defenses aren’t anything that would render this unit ineffective.
Offensively, this 2014 unit should be better than last year, with players getting healthy and Ben Roethlisberger seemingly being entirely on the same page as offensive coordinator Todd Haley. In the second half of 2013 Todd Haley agreed to run more huddle offense, and the results were good as the Steelers finished 6-3 in the last nine games. According to nfl.com, during the span in which Pittsburgh was running more of their no huddle offense, the offense was averaging more than 10 points.
Roethlisberger told Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that he expects more no huddle in 2014. “I don’t want to call it our base offense, but I think you’ll see more of it,” Roethlisberger said.
The offensive line has some stability, as center Maurkice Pouncey returns from injury. Last year Pouncey was injured in week one and missed the entire season. The offensive line will undoubtedly benefit from getting their Pro Bowl center back. Along Pouncey are solid players like David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert.
A potential downside to Pittsburgh’s offense is the off field issues of running backs Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount. However, despite being charged with possession of marijuana, nfl.com’s Marc Sessler reported that Mike Tomlin intents to play both Bell and Blount in the season opener. Having both backs in action is great news for the Steelers, as the Bell and Blount duo can smoke defenders in the open field, blaze through defenses and rip off big gains.
Heath Miller is still around and he’s still as reliable as ever, as he truly personifies the idea that tight ends are security blankets. Emmanuel Sanders left the Steel City in favor of the Mile High City, but Pittsburgh should suffice fine without him.
Markus Wheaton seems ready to replace Sanders as the compliment to Antonio Brown. The offense also added another speedster in Darrius Heyward-Bey, as well as long time Saint Lance Moore. DHB and Moore know what they’re doing and both receivers bring a unique skill set to the offense. Talented rookie Martavis Bryant is also a player worth keeping an eye on. So to make a long story short, the Steelers lost Moore but added three solid receivers.
Perhaps the offense’s biggest X factor is rookie Dri Archer. Archer, who ran the fastest 40 yard dash at the NFL combine, will likely see a lot of time as a utility man of sorts. Archer displayed his scintillating speed during the preseason, and could be a key cog in the Steelers’ no huddle offense.
And don’t forget, there’s also Big Ben.
The best quarterback from the 2004 draft class, Roethlisberger is going to be the deciding factor in whether or not Pittsburgh makes the post season. Ben hasn’t really showed a whole lot of signs of slowing down, which is a great sign for the Black and Yellow.
The Ravens are always a threat in the AFC North, as are the Bengals, but I think this is truly Pittsburgh’s division to lose. Some question marks surround Flacco after his forgettable 2013 season, and the Bengals will be without Mike Zimmer running the defense for the first time in a long time.
The Steelers face a tough start to the season, as their first three games are against Cleveland, Baltimore and Carolina. However, the rest of the AFC North has a tough opening schedule as well. Pittsburgh could easily go into a pivotal week 8 game against Indianapolis 5-2.
Unless the Steelers somehow start out 0-4 again, their experience and poise should carry them to a divisional title. Don’t be surprised if Pittsburgh finishes with 10 or 11 wins, as well as the tiebreakers over their divisional rivals.