Offense: Joe Flacco was the beneficiary of some preseason injuries, but once he got the starting job, he didn’t look back. As good as Matt Ryan was, Flacco almost matched him, and became the first rookie to lead his team to two playoff victories. Although Flacco gets a ton of hype, this is a run-first team that likes to take shots down the field at times. Even though they didn’t have a 1,000 yard rusher, their three man rotation of LeRon McClain, Ray Rice, and Willis McGahee combined for almost 2,400 yards, over 1,000 yards more than they gave up to opponents. This season, it looks like Rice will get the majority of the touches, and he has looked impressive in the preseason, both running and catching the ball out of the backfield. The Ravens lucked out when Derrick Mason came out of retirement for another season, because he is one of the few receiving threats for Flacco. Mason just continues to get it done, and may be the most underrated wide receiver of all time. Opposite him will be the under whelming Michael Clayton, while the Ravens are hoping speedster, Demetrius Williams can have a breakout season.
Defense: Baltimore’s defense lost its coordinator to the Jets, as well as inside linebacker Bart Scott, and safety Jim Leonhard. The defense will be just fine, however, with Haloti Ngata on the line, Ray Lewis leading the linebackers, and Ed Reed patrolling the secondary. Scott’s departure also gives youngster Tavares Gooden a chance to prove his worth, and from what I’ve seen in the preseason, he’s the real deal. Terrell Suggs finally got a new contract, so he’ll be happy and should be able to produce a double digit sack total. I also like what Jarret Johnson and rookie, Paul Kruger, bring to the table, whether that be at defensive end or outside linebacker. Their starting cornerbacks are very good, but the lack of depth behind the starters worries me, especially with Chris McAlister gone, and Samari Rolle on the PUP list.
Offense: The Bengals had the worst offense in all of football a season ago, but will benefit mightily from the return of franchise quarterback, Carson Palmer. Palmer underwent the same surgery that Jake Delhomme came back from, so I am not worried about any lingering effects. Palmer will have plenty of targets to throw to, and Chad Ochocinco might be the happiest person to have Palmer back. The Bengals also acquired Lavernues Coles to offset the loss of T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and will have a focused Chris Henry, who missed most of last season because of suspension. The team is also hoping that second year receivers, Andre Caldwell and Jerome Simpson, can contribute, after both were non-factors in their rookie seasons. Running the ball will be Cedric Benson, who has seemingly resurrected his career in Cincinnati. I really like his burst and power, and he’s shown me in the preseason why he was a top five draft pick. The offensive line is the one concern in this offense. First round pick Andre Smith missed all of training camp and the preseason holding out, and then broke his foot right after signing. The Bengals were counting on him to protect Palmer’s blind spot, but it looks like he won’t be in the team’s plans for at least the immediate future.
Defense: This unit has slowly improved under Marvin Lewis, and last season, it actually kept the team in some games when the offense wasn’t clicking. I also really like what they did in the draft this year, stealing defensive end Michael Johnson and linebacker Rey Maualuga in the second and third round respectively. I believe they have a star in weak side linebacker, Keith Rivers, and I also really like their starting cornerbacks, Leon Hall and Jonathan Joseph. Their defensive line is very stout against the run, and they have a very nice rotation at defensive tackle. They could definitely use more of a pass rush, but I do look for that to improve with the addition of the aforementioned Johnson, who will start at right defensive end. I don’t like the addition of Roy Williams, but he does add a physical element to the secondary, and the Bengals will likely replace him with Chinedum Ndukwe on passing downs.
Offense: The Browns failed to live up to expectations last season, especially offensively. They did suffer a ton of injuries, though, particularly at the quarterback position, and had to resort to third stringer Ken Dorsey down the stretch. New head coach Eric Mangini held a battle in training camp and preseason between Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson, with Quinn emerging as the victor. At running back, Jamal Lewis made the team, but only because of the lack of NFL experience behind him, however, rookie James Davis looks promising. At wide receiver, Donte Stallworth is suspended for the season, while Braylon Edwards needs to show more concentration catching the ball. The Browns also brought in rookies Mohammad Massequoi and Brian Robiskie to compete for a starting spot. The line, which looked so good two seasons ago, suffered a letdown last season, but there is talent there, with left tackle Joe Thomas and rookie center Alex Mack.
Defense: If the Browns are going to compete in this division, this unit is going to have to be much better. Nose tackle Shaun Rogers is the center piece, and when he is motivated, can be one of the most dominating defensive players in the league. Middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson was one of the league leaders in tackles, but he isn’t really a playmaker. At outside linebacker, Kamerion Wimbley must have a big year rushing the passer. If the Browns struggle at pressuring the opposing quarterback, the secondary will again struggle. Former Jet safety Abraham Elam could emerge as a star in the secondary, while Eric Wright and Brandon McDonald return as the starting corners.
Offense: The Super Bowl winning Steelers return almost all of their starters, and get back running back Rashard Medenhall. Ben Roethlisberger has proven to be one of the most clutch quarterbacks in the league, and has no fear of taking a big hit if there is a possibility of making a completion. The Steelers love to run the ball, but have no problem throwing the ball every time if the running game struggles. The Steelers do have a nice rotation in the backfield with Willie Parker, Medenhall, and Mewelde Moore. At wide receiver, starters Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes are back, and it looks as though Holmes is ready to emerge as the number one guy. The Steelers lost third receiver Nate Washington, but they feel as though Limas Sweed is ready to step up, and rookie Mike Wallace has looked good as well.
Defense: This was the number one defense in the league last season, and this year should be no different, as long as everyone can stay healthy. The defensive line is underrated, and its ability to occupy blockers allows the rest of the unit to make plays. Safety Troy Polamalu is the best player on the defense, and could be the best defensive player in the game, which is saying something considering outside linebacker James Harrison was named defensive player of the year last season. Harrison and fellow outside linebacker Lamar Woodley form one of the fiercest pass rushing duos in the league, while James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons are solid on the inside. At cornerback, Ike Taylor returns, while newcomer Randall Gay will be the other starter.