Two AFC North Front Runners Both Having Preseason Issues

The Browns battered by Detroit

The good news in the AFC North is that someone is going to win the division.  Many “experts” have already stated that the division may be won with a 9-7, or maybe even a .500 8-8 record.  Both the favorites, the Steelers and Browns, have rather brutal schedules, while the other two teams, the Bengals and Ravens, seem at least a year away from contending even for a division title.

The issue right now that is despite it being only preseason, neither the Browns or Steelers look like teams that are on the verge of being world beaters.  The Browns seem to have more issues as it stands, with some injuries to big name starters, as well as just a lack of focus for a team that was one win away from the playoffs.  The Browns are 0-3, and Saturday at Ford Field they were run all over by the Lions, a team that has played well, but many would bet are not as good as the Browns.

In speaking to some local people in the know here in Cleveland, some are already saying that the Browns may have read their own press clippings a little too much this offseason.  After all, have you ever head of a non-playoff team getting five prime-time games?  Also there has been talk about coach Romeo Crennel being a little too easy on his players during camp, a sign right away that the team wasn’t prepared for the last two beatings they took at the hands of the Giants and Lions.

These last two games have been rude wake up calls.  Versus the Super Bowl Champion Giants, the pass protection gave up a crushing sack that knocked QB Derek Anderson out with a concussion, they gave up a blocked punt for a safety, a run back on a free kick for a TD, a fumble returned 98 yards for a score, and had penalties and other mistakes that must have had national networks cringing at the thought of five Browns preseason games.

Now as they enter the final preseason game, a game that usually means nothing, the Browns are reeling a bit, and it will be up to Crennel to get his troops ready to go for opening day vs the high powered Cowboys.  The fans in Cleveland are scratching their heads a bit, as it’s not so much they are 0-3 in the preseason, it’s how bad they have looked.  The hype has been high for this team, and thus far it has not been there.

As for the Steelers, they won a hard fought game at Minnesota on Saturday night 12-10.  While they are 2-1 in the preseason, the questions and concerns are there as well, and most of those concerns surround the offensive line.  Last season they gave up sacks in bunches, and while Ben Roethlisberger is good on the run, he can’t afford to get hit nearly as much as he did last season and so far this preseason.

The team has shifted players in and out on the O-line trying to find the right combo to make sure they can not only pass protect but also run the ball as well.  Willie Parker is coming back off a broken leg, and while he’s looked good so far in the preseason, there has to be concern as well.  The secondary is also a unit that the coaches have to be concerned about, as last night the anicent Gus Frerotte went 13-for-19 against them for 133 yards.

And the special teams?  Don’t even get started there.  This unit for the Steelers has been a nightmare for the past few seasons, and it reared its ugly head again as they allowed a kickoff return for a score in the loss to the Bills in Toronto.  It’s been commonplace for this team to have major lapses in this area, and it’s got to give Mike Tomlin nightmares.  For now, the best way to try to solve it is simply to make sure players stay in their gaps and make tackles when the returner is in front of them.

So where these two teams will end up as the 08 season gets underway is anyones guess.  The Browns appear to have more concerns right now, but the Steelers are also working hard and looking to make major adjustments to get better as well.  It’s a division that appears to be wide open, and for now it’s up to these two teams to right their ships and make sure it belongs to one of them.

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