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AFC North Capsules

By United Press International   |   Sept. 3, 2002 at 5:49 PM   |   Comments

Capsule summaries from the AFC North:

Baltimore Ravens

Coach: Brian Billick knows this season will be one of transition. He lost 13 starters from 2001 and top defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis. Billick will have to rely upon his few remaining veterans and his strengths as a head coach - organization, motivation and a strong work ethic - to get the Ravens through what could be a long season. Once considered an offensive genius in Minnesota, Billick has not had the same type of offensive success with the Baltimore offense. The lack of talent on the defensive line has new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan switching to a 3-4 scheme.

2001 season: Made the playoffs by clinching a wild card berth with a 10-6 record. Beat Miami in the wild card round. Lost to Pittsburgh in the divisional playoff.

Major additions: QB Jeff Blake.

Major losses: DT Sam Adams, S Corey Harris, WR Qadry Ismail, TE Shannon Sharpe, LB Jamie Sharper, CB Duane Starks, S Rod Woodson.

Quarterback: Chris Redman will be the Ravens' fourth opening game starter in the last four years. A third-round pick in 2000, Redman has attempted only three passes in his career. During the preseason, Redman has shown excellent poise in the pocket and a big arm. The Ravens hope he will prove to be the guy to build the offense around and provide stability at the position for years to come. Jeff Blake was signed in the offseason and will take over at quarterback if Redman falters.

Running backs: Jamal Lewis had a very impressive rookie season in 2000, but missed all of last year with a torn ACL. With the inexperience at quarterback, Lewis will be asked to carry the load on offense. The question remains whether his knee will be able to hold up to the challenge. Rookie Chester Taylor, who opened eyes throughout training camp, is the top reserve at running back.

Receivers: Travis Taylor, who has big-play ability but is very inconsistent, will be the top receiver. Brandon Stokley will start opposite Taylor. Stokley has deceptive speed and the best hands on the team, but his small frame limits him in trying to get separation from physical cornerbacks. Fourth-round pick Ron Johnson will see action as the third receiver. With the departure of Shannon Sharpe, tight end Todd Heap will become a starter and could emerge as a serious offensive threat.

Offensive line: Managed to keep four of five starters from last year. Five-time Pro Bowler Jonathan Ogden is the strength of the line at left tackle, however the interior of the line has to improve. Center Mike Flynn and right guard Bennie Anderson were overmatched at times. Joining Ogden on the left side will be athletic but inexperienced guard Casey Rabach. Edwin Mulitalo, the team's starting left guard for three years, shifts to right tackle.

Defensive line: Aside from left end Michael McCrary, who is returning from injury, the entire roster of defensive linemen has only one NFL start to their credit. As a result, Baltimore will experiment with a 3-4 scheme. Rookie Anthony Weaver will start at right end. Were unable to re-sign Sam Adams, one of the better run-stopping defensive tackles and a powerful inside pass-rusher. Kelly Gregg will replace Adams in the middle. Former defensive end turned linebacker Adalius Thomas could return to the line, if Weaver and Kelly struggle early.

Linebackers: Ray Lewis continues to be the heart and soul of the defense. The NFL's premier linebacker will not have big tackles in front of him anymore with the switch to a 3-4. Second-year player Edgerton Hartwell will join Lewis on the inside. Hartwell has decent speed but doesn't read plays well and lacks Lewis' agility. At outside linebacker, Peter Boulware racked up a career-high 15 sacks last season. The other outside linebacker will be Adalius Thomas.

Secondary: Chris McAlister is on the verge of being recognized as one of the NFL's elite corners. He is the only returning starter in the secondary from last season. Second-year man Gary Baxter makes the transition from safety to left corner. Rookie free safety Ed Reed, the team's first-round pick, will be counted on to make an instant impact as he replaces Rod Woodson. The biggest surprise has been rookie free agent Will Demps, who beat out Anthony Mitchell for the starting job at strong safety. Demps is a big hitter and has displayed solid football instincts. Robert Tate and James Trapp will see time in nickel and dime packages.

Special teams: Matt Stover continues to be one of the NFL's most reliable kickers. With the offense struggling at times, he will be called upon even more. Lost Pro Bowl return specialist Jermaine Lewis to Houston in the expansion draft. Rookie Lamont Brightful will take over on kick and punt returns. Brightful appears to be up for the task as he was among the leaders in punt return average in the preseason.

Prediction: The vaunted Ravens defense fell off last year from its championship campaign in 2000. Severe cap causalities have made matters worse. The lack of depth on defense and the lack of talent on offense will relegate Baltimore to the basement.


Cincinnati Bengals

Coach: Dick LeBeau, in his second full season as coach, will attempt to end Cincinnati's 11-year playoff drought. Last year the Bengals started 2-0, but had a seven-game losing streak in the middle of the season. The Bengals ended on a good note, winning their final two games against Pittsburgh and Tennessee. Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski spent the offseason tinkering with his system, one that led the NFL in passing five years ago with Seattle. Defensive coordinator Mark Duffner will oversee the ninth-ranked defense, which was built by LeBeau, who served as the team's defensive coordinator before becoming coach.

2001 season: Tied for fifth in the AFC Central with a 6-10 record.

Major additions: CB Jeff Burris, QB Gus Frerotte, OT Levi Jones (first-round pick), WR Michael Westbrook.

Major losses: TE Tony McGee, WR Darnay Scott.

Quarterback: Gus Frerotte, who quickly adjusted to Bratkowski's system, beat out Jon Kitna for the starting job. He has a stronger arm and takes better care of the ball than the turnover-prone Kitna. Frerotte, a former Pro Bowler, has not been a full-time starter since 1997, and has been a backup with two different teams over the past three seasons. Kitna, the lowest-rated quarterback in 2001, will be the backup. Akili Smith, the third overall pick in the 1999 draft, is recovering from a torn hamstring and is the third string QB.

Running backs: Corey Dillon is arguably one of the top five backs in the league. He continues to put up great numbers despite receiving minimal help from the passing game. This season Dillon could become only fourth running back in NFL history to reach the 1,000-yard plateau in each of his first six seasons. He is also 239 yards away from becoming the franchise's all-time leading rusher. Brandon Bennett provides the team with a serviceable backup.

Receivers: Hope Peter Warrick will finally become the playmaking receiver they desperately need. In his sophomore season, Warrick increased his yard and reception totals, but averaged less than 10 yards per catch and had only one touchdown. Darnay Scott was cut and replaced by the less expensive Michael Westbrook. Westbrook broke his left wrist early in training camp but is expected to be ready for the start of the season. College teammates and second-year pros - Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh - headline a group of youngsters vying for the role of third and fourth receiver.

Offensive line: This unit is led by right tackle Willie Anderson and left tackle Richmond Webb. Webb, 35, is an outstanding pass blocker, but his run-blocking skills are beginning to fade. The Bengals will work first-round pick Levi Jones in at left tackle for a series or two at a time during the season in order to continue his growth at the position and to keep Webb fresh. If Jones catches on quickly, he will replace Webb as the starter. Guards Matt O'Dwyer and Mike Goff and center Rich Braham are good run blockers, but their pass protection skills are still a concern.

Defensive line: Right end Justin Smith proved to be the real thing as he collected 8 1/2 sacks in his rookie season. On the left side, Vaughn Booker has excellent run-stuffing skills and is versatile enough to play inside because of his ability to anchor and disengage blocks at the point of attack. Reinard Wilson, the team leader in sacks, will replace Booker on pass-rushing downs. Tony Williams and the fiery leader Oliver Gibson are the defensive tackles.

Linebackers: Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons are two of the game's top young linebackers. Spikes, the defensive captain, led the team in tackles and is primed to have his best season as he enters the final year of his contract. Simmons may lack the ideal strength and size for a middle linebacker, but he fills the hole well and is a hard hitter. Simmons recently signed a six-year contract for $23 million. And Steve Foley is underrated as the outside linebacker.

Secondary: Right cornerback Artrell Hawkins tore a knee ligament in minicamp but should be ready to start the season. Free agent signee Jeff Burris will join him on the opposite side. Burris, a nine-year veteran, will provide the young secondary with leadership and consistency. Cincinnati, which hasn't had a player intercept more than four passes in a season since 1996, selected safety Lamont Thompson in the second round. Thompson may turn out to be the steal of the draft. Cory Hall will start at strong safety.

Special teams: Drafted Purdue kicker Travis Dorsch in the fourth round to compete with disappointing incumbent Neil Rackers. Speedster T.J. Houshmandzadeh will share kick return duties with Curtis Keaton. And Peter Warrick will be the top punt returner.

Prediction: The Bengals will use the time-tested formula of a good defense and a strong running game. With the majority of their starters returning, the Bengals should have their first .500 season since 1996.


Cleveland Browns

Coach: In Butch Davis' first season with Cleveland, the Browns increased their win total by four games. Their record could have been even better, had the young team not lost four games in the final minute, including two overtime defeats. More importantly, the arrival of Davis brought about a new confidence and an aggressive attitude in the defense. With the offseason departure of Dwight Clark, the Browns' vice president and director of football operations, Davis will assume an even greater role in personnel decisions. In his second season as offensive coordinator, Bruce Arians will continue with the development of Cleveland's young offense. The Browns defense flourished under coordinator Foge Fazio's guidance, causing 41 turnovers.

2001 season: Tied for third in the AFC Central with a 7-9 record.

Major additions: RB William Green (first-round pick), S Robert Griffith, LB Earl Holmes, DE Kenard Lang, OT Ryan Tucker.

Major losses: DE Keith McKenzie, G Jeremy McKinney, OT Romen Oben.

Quarterback: Tim Couch is improving on a team that is weak at the skill positions. After playing only seven games in 2000 because of injury, he passed for a career high 3,040 yards and 17 touchdowns, but also threw 21 interceptions, in 2001. Couch appears to be in good hands with offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who had great success in the past working with Peyton Manning when he was the QB coach in Indianapolis. With more help from the running game and the further development of his young receivers, Couch will become one of the better quarterbacks in the league. Kelly Holcomb is slated to be the backup.

Running backs: Off-the-field problems did not stop the Browns from picking Boston College standout William Green with their first-round pick in 2002. Green, the first running back selected in the draft, is expected to be the cure for the NFL's worst ground game. The Browns rushed for only 1,351 yards and managed a paltry 3.2 yards per carry. Jamel White, who had five touchdowns, will be the backup. James Jackson, the team's leading rusher in 2001, is also expected to see time in backfield.

Receivers: Kevin Johnson, who caught nine touchdowns, is Couch's favorite receiver. His 84 receptions almost doubled that of the team's second leading receiver. The Browns have stockpiled receivers through the draft over the past three seasons and are hoping some of them will come into their own in 2002. As a rookie last season, Quincy Morgan showed the ability to make big plays, but also dropped his share of passes. A healthy Rickey Dudley will be able to work the middle of the field at tight end.

Offensive line: The play up front was very disappointing at times, as the line allowed 51 sacks and did not consistently open up holes in the running game. Signed the well-traveled Barry Stokes to play left guard and former Ram Ryan Tucker to play right tackle. Center Dave Wohlabaugh got bigger and stronger during the offseason and six-year pro Ross Verba will move from left guard to left tackle. If former Pro Bowl guard Tre' Johnson, who has missed the majority of the last two seasons with injuries, can stay healthy and return to form, the line should be greatly improved. Shaun O'Hara will start at right guard if Johnson cannot go.

Defensive line: The line will be led by right end Courtney Brown and left tackle Gerard Warren, 2000 and 2001 first-round draft picks, respectively. Injuries limited Brown to five games, yet he recorded 4 1/2 sacks. Warren made great strides during his rookie season and should be even better with a healthy Brown in the lineup. Kenard Lang, who played for Davis at the University of Miami and for Fazio with the Redskins, signed as a free agent and will join the defensive front. Orpheus Roye will start at right defensive tackle.

Linebackers: Suffered a devastating blow in their first preseason game as Jamir Miller tore his right Achilles tendon and is out for the season. The team does not have a great outside pass rush and Miller, the first Browns' player to be selected to the Pro Bowl since the franchise was revived in 1999, supplied 13 sacks last year. Signed former Steeler Earl Holmes to start at middle linebacker. Veteran Dwayne Rudd will man the weak side.

Secondary: A very deep unit. Corey Fuller and Daylon McCutcheon are solid as the starting corners. Earl Little, who recorded a career high in interceptions and tackles, will share time with Devin Bush at free safety. Veteran strong safety Robert Griffith has strong cover skills and is good against the run. Anthony Henry led the AFC with 10 interceptions and will be the nickel back.

Special teams: Phil Dawson connected on 88 percent of his field goal attempts, ranking second in the NFL in accuracy. Punter Chris Gardocki has a strong leg and has never had a punt blocked in his career. Andre Davis and Quincy Morgan will man the kickoffs. Davis will also share punt return duty with Dennis Northcutt.

Prediction: This could be the year when all of the Browns' top draft choices put it together. With an emerging defense and a promising offense, they are poised to make the playoffs.


Pittsburgh Steelers

Coach: Bill Cowher has the best winning percentage of any Steelers' coach, but owns a 1-3 record in AFC championship games. Entering his 11th season with Pittsburgh, the longest tenure of any active coach, Cowher hopes to not only improve upon that record, but also finally win a Super Bowl. Unlike past seasons, management re-signed their key free agents and even added some new players as they look to become the inaugural champions of the AFC North. In his first year as offensive coordinator, Mike Mularkey had the team third in the league in total offense. Tim Lewis is in charge of the defense that ranked first in the league, had the most sacks and finished second in points allowed.

2001 season: Won the AFC Central with a 13-3 record. Beat Baltimore in the divisional playoff. Lost to New England in the AFC championship game.

Major additions: LB James Farrior, WR Terance Mathis, K Todd Peterson.

Major losses: LB Earl Holmes, WR Bobby Shaw.

Quarterback: Kordell Stewart set career highs in passing and rushing yards and completion percentage last season. However, Stewart threw two interceptions in the fourth quarter of the AFC championship game loss. Stewart has worked hard over the years to prove that he is a legitimate QB, but now he must prove he is capable of guiding a team to the Super Bowl. Signed Charlie Batch in the offseason to compete with incumbent backup Tommy Maddox.

Running backs: Jerome Bettis was on pace to rush for over 1,500 yards for only the second time in his career, until a groin injury caused him to miss the final five games of the regular season. Bettis' injury allowed Amos Zereoue and Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala to see more action. Both rushed for over 400 yards, giving the Steelers one of the deepest backfields in football. Look for third-down back Zereoue to see even more time as he spells 10-year veteran Bettis, whose bruising running style might begin to take its toll.

Receivers: Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward had breakout seasons in 2001. Last year, they became the first Steelers' duo to reach 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. Ward also set a club record with 94 receptions. Terance Mathis was signed to add depth and former Indiana University quarterback-turned-receiver Antwaan Randle-El could become a versatile weapon in the Steelers' offense.

Offensive line: The Steelers led the NFL in rushing, thanks in large part to this mauling unit which opened huge holes. Marvel Smith is developing into one of the league's best right tackles. Left tackle Wayne Gandy, the elder statesmen of the line, has good pass-protection skills. Jeff Hartings, who made the transition from guard to center last year, and Pro Bowl left guard Alan Faneca, are solid. With the departure of Rich Tylski, Oliver Ross will start at right guard.

Defensive line: Left end Aaron Smith continued his development, establishing a career high with eight sacks. Kimo von Oelhoffen, the anchor of the defensive front, will start on the other side. Casey Hampton, the Steelers' number one draft pick in 2001, will start at nose tackle. Kendrick Clancy is the top reserve.

Linebackers: Pro Bowler Jason Gildon led the team with 12 sacks. On the right side Joey Porter and Kendrell Bell, the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, recorded nine sacks apiece. Signed James Farrior to replace Earl Holmes at inside linebacker. John Fiala will also get playing time at inside linebacker in the 3-4 scheme.

Secondary: Chad Scott teams with Dewayne Washington to give the Steelers a formidable set of cornerbacks. Scott had one of his best seasons leading the team with five interceptions, returning two for touchdowns. Free safety Brent Alexander set a career high with four interceptions. Hard-hitting strong safety Lee Flowers has become a vocal leader on the team. Deshea Townsend has emerged as the Steelers' nickel back.

Special teams: The weakest link on the team. Todd Peterson will replace kicker Kris Brown. Heinz Field was a nightmare for kickers as Brown only made 14 of 24 field goal attempts at home and opposing kickers made only 33.3 percent. Return coverage is also a source of concern as Pittsburgh allowed three special teams touchdowns in two playoff games last year.

Prediction: The Steelers are the favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. The defense continues to be formidable and the offense is more than capable.

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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