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$.10 After Week 1

By Jeff Risdon

$.01--The first week is often full of surprises, and this year is no exception. For my money, the biggest eyebrow raiser was Miami’s 33-20 victory over New England.

The outcome isn’t terribly stunning, as the Dolphins won the last meeting in Miami too. But in handing New England its first 0-1 start in over a decade, they did it by beating up New England. Here’s the Patriots’ second-half drive chart:

























That works out to 37 plays for 47 yards and zero points after halftime. Miami’s suffocating defense squeezed all life out of Tom Brady and the New England offense with constant pressure and strong downfield coverage. It was enough to let Ryan Tannehill rally the Dolphins after a sputtering, turnover-plagued start.

Miami seemed to want to beat New England more than the Patriots wanted to win. That’s an oversimplification, but when Tom Brady throws 56 times and doesn’t top 250 yards, Miami’s defense was the best unit on the field. They looked sharper, hungrier and more schematically prepared than New England’s offense.

Dolphins fans are desperately hoping their team can follow this up and assert themselves as the team to beat in the AFC East. They have that potential, but write off the Patriots at your own peril.

$.02--Much to the nation’s surprise, the Buffalo Bills join the Dolphins atop the AFC East (as do the Jets, who beat Oakland in a yawner). My personal pick for the #1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, which of course they’ve already traded away to Cleveland, Buffalo charged into Chicago and laid a pile of bison dung on the mistake-prone Bears.

I want to give E.J. Manuel and the Bills offense a lot of credit, I really do. But Chicago’s defense was so lousy that it’s hard to jump to any positive conclusions. I thought the Bears upgraded with Jared Allen, Lamar Houston and some veteran stopgap safeties. If the first week is to be a judge, I thought wrong.

Chicago could have a very serious problem at linebacker. For years they’ve relied upon Lance Briggs being terrific to cover a lot of holes, including when a certain #54 was still playing next to him. From what I saw in the preseason and again against Buffalo, Briggs is no longer capable of plugging holes. In fact, he might be digging one of his own as Father Time catches up to the future Hall of Famer.

None of the youngsters drafted recently to help bolster the position are worthy of seeing a gameday active roster. The price of swinging and missing badly on Shea McClellin and Jon Bostic, both of whom they drafted 3-4 rounds above where many graded them, is that the back end still lacks competence. The corners can make plays, but the guys between the tackles are going to continue to struggle.

Jay Cutler also struggled, and that’s even more problematic. These Bears are going to have to outscore opponents, and that means Cutler has to be sharp and smart. He was neither in this game. He threw “only” two INTs. It could easily have been five. His ball placement was consistently off, and several of his throws were forces into heavy coverage when better options were present.

Congrats to the Bills for their first-ever win in Chicago!

$.03--Kansas City was one of the pleasant surprises of 2013. Hopefully the Chiefs faithful can hold onto those good feelings, because 2014 probably couldn’t have started any worse. They lost at home to Tennessee 26-10, but that’s only part of the pain.

The Chiefs lost their best defensive player, linebacker Derrick Johnson, to a torn Achilles tendon. If you want to argue that Dontari Poe is better I won’t fight that assertion, but Johnson is the centerpiece and leader of the defense. They have no depth at inside backer whatsoever; the other starter is Josh Mauga, who might be a serviceable backup at best. Browns castoff James Michael Johnson is the next man up. Yikes!

Johnson wasn’t the only Chiefs defensive starter who tore his Achilles. Underappreciated end Mike DeVito also suffered the same painful fate. He was far and away the best run stuffer on the team. The Titans exploited this and gashed the Chiefs for 162 yards on the ground, a figure that would have been much higher if RB Shonn Greene didn’t continually run into the butt of his blockers.

Conditions have to be pretty much optimal for Alex Smith to guide this Chiefs team to wins, and they are far from optimal now. Smith struggled in this one, throwing three INTs. Jamaal Charles struggled, rushing for just 19 yards. New kicker Cairo Santos struggled, missing a 47-yard FG after bouncing his earlier 35-yarder off the right upright. It could be a very long, frustrating year in Kansas City.

$.04--San Francisco pounced all over Dallas, leaping out to a quick 21-3 lead in a little over 10 minutes. The hapless Cowboys turned the ball over on four of their first five possessions, including a fumble return TD by safety Chris Culliver on their opening drive.

Not much happened in the rest of the game. Carlos Hyde looked impressive in his Niners debut, while Frank Gore efficiently chugged out yards. The final wound up just 28-17, made closer by a garbage time TD from Tony Romo to Terrance Williams.

It’s not often Romo is the problem in Dallas, but he was on this day. Their embattled defense played well enough to win, for once. They blanked San Francisco in the second half, allowing just over 3 yards per play in that stanza. They just couldn’t overcome the massive black hole their QB dug for them.

The Niners defense was more opportunistic than stifling, though they did force two quick 3-and-outs impressively in the second half when their own offense bogged down. Colin Kaepernick had modest numbers (16-for-23, 201 yards, 2 TDs) but it was what he didn’t do that helped win the game. He didn’t turn the ball over. He didn’t make poor reads. He didn’t tuck and run haphazardly. He managed the game, and that’s all that San Francisco needed him to do to win the game. They can win a lot of games that way. A lot of games.

$.05--Denver hosted Indianapolis in the Sunday night affair. After stomping out to a big early lead, the Broncos got comfortable and coasted to the 31-24 victory.

The first half might as well have been an infomercial for Orange Julius. Broncos TE/WR Julius Thomas caught three touchdowns passes, beating three different Colts defenders who had no prayer in trying to cover the emerging star. The third was a quick strike in the red zone where he beat LaRon Landry so badly that it almost appeared the overmuscled safety didn’t even try to recover.

The Colts had some great chances in the third quarter, but their totally inept interior OL kept them out of the end zone. Two 1st-and-goal opportunities ended in 3 points, as Colts fans everywhere called for Offensive Coordinator Pep Hamilton’s predictable, conservative head. Denver was sloppy and lethargic for much of the second half, but the Colts just didn’t have the horses to run with the Broncos.

It was quite interesting to follow the progress of this game on social media. More and more national analysts, not to mention Colts fans, are finally seeing the real flaws in Andrew Luck. They’re also starting to see the light on Colts GM Ryan Grigson, who might have actually made the team worse around Luck in the last two years with a series of ponderous personnel decisions.

It’s hard to blame Luck for this one. His offensive line was overmatched and the playcalling strategy was weak. He did a masterful job rallying the team back into contention. The Indy defense was no match for Peyton Manning and the loaded skill position players. And that’s why much of the criticism in Indy will get pointed squarely at Grigson. As it should be.

$.06--There are apparently such things as moral victories. Cleveland fell behind Pittsburgh 27-3 at halftime. Johnny Football didn’t play. They even saw their punter ninja-kicked…

…yet Northeast Ohio seems strangely happy with the loss.

That’s because Brian Hoyer and the rugged Browns running game absolutely dominated the final half. Coming out of the tunnel for the second half, Cleveland scored three TDs and a field goal on its first four possessions while holding the Steelers to one first down in over 20 minutes of action.

For Cleveland, that’s enough to take away the sting of falling to 0-1 for the 11th year in a row. A team showing resiliency and attitude, rallying from a huge deficit only to lose on a last-second field goal is enough progress for Browns fans to feel good about their team.

Much of what the Browns did well, namely running the ball and stopping Pittsburgh from doing the same, can carry over. The offensive line looked great, and rookie RBs Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West both showed power and decisiveness with the ball.

Unfortunately, they’re not playing the Steelers’ slow defense every week. Other than rookie Ryan Shazier, the LBs and DBs in Pittsburgh play slower than any other group in the league. Cleveland will find tougher sledding later.

As for Antonio Brown’s kick, there’s no way that isn’t grounds for immediate ejection. Even if his intent wasn’t malicious, the result certainly was. No place for letting things like that go in a league that flagged Texas safety D.J. Swearinger for a clean hit on RG3. Swearinger lowered his head as he drove Griffin into the ground, making it look much worse than it was and drawing a controversial flag. This Brown play was the opposite. 

$.07--Frequent readers know I’m generally a Big Ten apologist in college football. This past Saturday, however, requires an apology from the B1G to the football world.

Even the “impressive” scores have asterisks. Wisconsin barely led at halftime, while Iowa trailed almost the entire game.

This might be the low point for the conference. The two best teams, Michigan State and Ohio State, failed badly against quality opponents who showed real vulnerability. Michigan, still somehow clinging to a high profile, was shut out for the first time in 30 years in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the 31-0 final would indicate.

Here is a preemptive warning for my fellow B1G region denizens: ignore the conference schedule. Sparty and Wisconsin are both going to look like legit final four contending teams as they tear through Purdue, Maryland and their ilk. It’s a false positive, the eye in the hurricane. This conference got blown away in its first big test, and it will get shredded in bowl season, too.

$.08--NFL Quickies

1. The Fox pregame show is generally my favorite to watch, and this Sunday cemented it. Rob Riggle, normally the weak point, doing an extended bit with Steel Panther to a reworked “Tomorrow Night”--the best party song ever!-- just might be the best pregame bit I’ve ever witnessed.

2. At one point in Baltimore’s game against Cincinnati, Joe Flacco had 95 yards on 31 pass attempts. As Vincent Frank of Sportsnaut noted, that’s really impressive because it’s so hard to accomplish so little. Flacco is arguably the worst starting QB in the AFC, and that’s the lesser conference too. This loss was his first-ever home defeat in September. If he doesn’t play significantly better, it’s not going to be his last this year.

3. I’ve been a frequent critic of Texans LB Brooks Reed, but he played a whale of a game against Washington. He showed patience before attacking, a welcome development instead of just thrusting forward full tilt without regard for the offense. He has enough skill to be a real X-factor if he can keep it up.

4. Philadelphia escaped an upset from a game Jaguars team by scoring the last 31 points of a 31-17 win. Thank Darren Sproles, the smallest guy on the field, for the biggest play. His 4th-and-1 scamper ended 51 yards later in the end zone and sapped the Jaguars spirit in the process.

5. It’s a shame #1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney will miss at least a month with a torn meniscus in his knee. They must not rush him back, however. His long-term presence is more important than what one or two more weeks without the pass-rushing phenom might mean.

6. Panthers rookie WR Kelvin Benjamin had an outstanding debut, catching 8 Derek Anderson passes including a spectacular TD on a heavily contested throw. Carolina beats Tampa without Cam Newton, a huge step forward for the Panthers.

$.09--College/Draft quickies

1. I was at Notre Dame/Michigan, and while I don’t want to detract from what the Irish accomplished, this game highlights two major flaws for Michigan. The Wolverines will not win more than half their games with Devin Gardner at quarterback, even in a weak B1G. Michigan wants him to be the poised, accurate athlete who eviscerated their defense in Everett Golson, but Gardner has an overdeveloped panic gene and aims his throws instead of just throwing them.

The other big flaw is the defensive game plan. If they think they have the corners to handle playing on islands, they’re delusional. The problem is that the safeties were even worse than the corners against Notre Dame. Their coverages looked disjointed and slow all night long. Brady Hoke might pay for these with his job.

2. The B1G wasn’t the only power conference that struggled. The PAC-12 saw Washington give up over 50 to FCS-level Eastern Washington, while a UMass team booted from the MAC for being too lousy had Colorado dead to rights before a late collapse. UCLA struggled with Memphis, while Arizona nearly pissed away a big early lead against UTSA (yes that’s a real school). Nevada pounded Washington State, while Oregon State nearly lost to Hawaii. Oregon is fantastic (more on that coming) but the rest of that major power looks pretty minor so far too.

3. I’m not surprised Oregon beat Michigan State in Eugene, though I did pick the Spartans. I am very surprised at how well Marcus Mariota carved up a very good Sparty defense. Mariota was the hot knife and the Michigan State D was the soft butter after halftime. It was a triumphant tour de force performance that should put the Ducks QB at the top of everyone’s preliminary Heisman ballot. The Ducks D deserves credit too, as their speed and pressure forced Connor Cook and the Spartans offense into numerous mistakes in the second half.

4. Did some film work on Arizona WR Austin Hill. He’s not well known because he missed 2013 with a torn ACL. His first two games of ’14 are a mixed bag. Against UNLV, Hill looked explosive getting deep and ran sharp, strong routes. He showed he could move well in space and wasn’t afraid to be physical. Against UTSA, the Roadrunners rolled more coverage Hill’s way and focused on being more physical closer to the line. It worked, as Hill was effectively taken out of the game. He doesn’t have the quickness or consistent burst off the line to get himself free against that sort of coverage. If he can improve on this, he’s going to be a solid NFL receiver. 

$.10--Today (Sept. 7th) marks my 18th wedding anniversary. On a rain-soaked afternoon--we were married on the day Hurricane Fran hit Cleveland--my lovely wife Julie and I exchanged vows and began our life together.

That day also marked the last time Ohio State and Notre Dame played in football. As our guests dodged the leaking roof of our reception, they danced their way to the hotel bar to catch up on the game. I’d like to say I didn’t do that, but my Buckeye-bleeding father knows that’s not true. He gave up his tickets that day and has not made me feel guilty about it once.

Football has always been a healthy part of our marriage. We’ve spent anniversaries on long weekends seeing Virginia Tech, Notre Dame and Texas all play home games as a big part of the celebration.

Even though I’m an Ohio State guy and she’s a Michigan gal, we’ve learned to tolerate and even appreciate the other side. It’s a friendly rivalry in our home, and in our extended families as well. Our kids don’t comprehend why others project so much nastiness towards the opposing side, and we’re quite proud of teaching that sort of détente.

This was an unusual anniversary in that it fell on a football Sunday. Of course with my vocation, it was fairly impossible to celebrate beyond a nice breakfast. It’s an accommodation made out of love. She never hits me with guilt or sadness, just the occasional Wilson when I shank a volleyball serve reception.

Our wedding day is better known to the world as the day Tupac Shakur was shot and killed. One of 2Pac’s posthumous recordings, and one of the few examples of his work this metalhead is familiar with, is a song called “Until the End of Time.” That’s us, baby! Happy Anniversary. 

Football Meteorology For Week 1

By Jeff Risdon

It’s been far too long since we’ve seen meaningful NFL football. The last seven months have dragged on like one of those overwrought superhero movies, impossible to tolerate yet inescapable from the national psyche.

For those new to this weekly feature, welcome! I pick each game straight up. Last season I did quite well, going 170-86 while counting the tie as a loss.

There is also a gambling component carrying over from last year. I started the 2013 with 10,000 som, the currency of Uzbekistan (roughly $4.30 in USD). Each week I wagered some money on up to 5 games. Some weeks I cleaned up, others I took a bath. In the end, going big on the New York Jets in the final weekend pushed me into the black for the season, as I wound up with 10,750 som.

This year I’m changing currencies and sticking with good old fashioned American cash. My mythical bank account once again starts at $10,000 but I’m raising the stakes a bit. I must choose one game each week where I wager at least $1,000.

I’m also resurrecting the Survivor Fantasy Game pick of the week. Even after my pick gets eliminated, I’ll still provide one I believe is the biggest lock of the straight-up picks.

Because this is the first week, the commentary here is brief. Week 1 is almost always the hardest week to forecast with a high degree of accuracy.

Thursday Game

Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawks--The first game of the season is a good one, pitting the defending champion Seahawks against Aaron Rodgers and the vaunted Packers offense. Even though the game is in Seattle, I think the Packers have a real shot to surprise here. Seattle’s offense is the issue that concerns me; starting overdrafted rookie Justin Britt at tackle against Clay Matthews could be a real problem for Russell Wilson & Co. I also like that playmakers Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson can slip a tackle from the strong Seattle secondary and take it to the raucous house. I expect a close one, closer than the 5.5-point line.

Seahawks 23, Packers 21

Sunday Games

Cincinnati Bengals at Baltimore Ravens--The winner of this divisional clash could very well win the AFC North thanks to the Week 1 victory. That’s how important this game is, so expect a great deal of intensity and tension. Those qualities aptly describe new Ravens WR Steve Smith, who is the X-factor addition to Baltimore that makes them match up better against the defending division champs. They need him because I can’t see them running the ball well at all against the strong Bengals front. Baltimore was dead last in YPC last year at 3.1, and they might not get half that here without Ray Rice. The QB who makes fewer mistakes, and that includes missed 3rd down throws and holding the ball too long, will prevail. I think Andy Dalton is better than Joe Flacco, but not on this day.

Ravens 20, Bengals 17

Washington Redskins at Houston Texans--This game deserves more of your attention than it’s probably going to get. Washington’s offense has a chance to be very good, adding Desean Jackson and getting a healthy RG3. Houston’s defense has a chance to be very good, adding Jadeveon Clowney to the awesome J.J. Watt and a healthy Brian Cushing. The Ethnic Slurs have a great chance to pull off the mild road upset (HOU -2.5) because I think their defense will handle Ryan Fitzpatrick. Still, Washington doesn’t have an answer for Arian Foster, and the Texans defense continually bested new Washington coach Jay Gruden’s offense when he ran the Bengals O. Tough call here.

Texans 28, Slurs 24

Buffalo Bills at Chicago Bears--Time to use the Bears in Survivor Fantasy Football. Chicago’s defense is still shaky on the back end, but their ballhawking corners are a nightmare for Bills QB E.J. Manuel. He’ll throw at least two INTs as he stares down his target and doesn’t recognize coverage shifts. Buffalo’s D will keep them within striking distance but they’ll have to generate points to pull off the road shocker.

Bears 23, Bills 13

Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers--Cleveland does not win in Pittsburgh, having one win in Heinz Field ever. Cleveland does not win season openers, their last 1-0 record coming in 2004. It’s hard to not recall the infamous 2007 opener, when a completely overwhelmed Charlie Frye freaked out as Browns QB in a 34-7 loss. Brian Hoyer is better than Charlie Frye…barely. This Steelers team isn’t great, but they’re good enough to annihilate the 5.5-point line. I’ll bet $1500 on it.

Steelers 24, Browns 10

Jacksonville Jaguars at Philadelphia Eagles--Upset alert? Maybe. Then again, maybe not. The Jaguars will be better, but opening on the road against Philly’s diverse, aggressive style on both sides of the ball is a tall order. The Eagles offensive line can dominate here, which means it’s a great week to own Lesean McCoy in your fantasy league. This game features the only double-digit spread (PHI -11.5), so if you’re a believer in using that team as your Survivor pick, you should feel safe in burning the Eagles here.

Eagles 30, Jaguars 17

Minnesota Vikings at St. Louis Rams--I really like the Vikings to crush the Rams except for one key factor: Robert Quinn vs. Matt Kalil. The Rams outstanding edge rusher is going to have a field day against the Vikings’ overrated left tackle, who proved once again in the preseason he has no answer for guys that can use either speed or power. Will it be enough? Probably not, as the Rams weakness at safety is a real problem against a big-play offense with Adrian Peterson, Cordarrelle Patterson and underrated TE Kyle Rudolph. I love the Vikings as 6.5-point dogs. I’m limiting myself to wagering just $500 only because I fear my overconfidence.

Vikings 23, Rams 17

New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins--Here’s a little glimpse into the creative process. I thought I had this column all wrapped up, so I launched into my celebratory dairy reward (in this case, Gouda cheese and Triscuits making a perfect mid-morning snack) with a smug sense of accomplishment. Then I proofed the piece and counted just 15 games. Uh oh. After quickly rushing my victory cheese back into the kitchen, I sat down in my writing chair and quickly thought about this AFC East game. What stands out is that while New England almost always beats Miami (they’ve won 7 of 8), they almost never cover on division road games. Since they’re just 3.5-point favorites, it portends well for the Dolphins to keep the game very close. Now where did that cheese go…?

Patriots 19, Dolphins 16

Oakland Raiders at New York Jets--Derek Carr, meet Rex Ryan. It figures to be a long day for Oakland’s rookie QB, much of it spent on his back. Ryan’s Jets are 7-1 against rookie QBs, allowing less than 50% completions overall and averaging over 4 sacks per contest. The New York corners are almost comically weak, but the Raiders just don’t have the weapons to exploit them. The +/- on this game is 40, the lowest total (with CAR/TB) of the week. I still like the under. I think Sebastian Janikowski’s ailing quad could cost the Raiders here.

Jets 16, Raiders 13

New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons--I was surprised to see the Falcons favored by 1.5 here. New Orleans has won six of the last seven meetings, and their loaded offense will challenge an Atlanta defense that doesn’t have much pass rush or depth. The Falcons will be better than last year’s miserable disappointment, but I’m not ready to expect them to knock of my NFC champion pick, even at home. If you must bet, take the over at +/- 51.

Saints 33, Falcons 28

Tennessee at Kansas City--For no other reason than a strong gut feel, I like the Titans here. I can’t really explain it any other way than that.

Titans 24, Chiefs 21

Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers--A critical NFC South matchup right off the bat, as these two teams figure to be battling for playoff life all season. The winner here picks up a valuable division win. The Panthers blew out Tampa Bay twice last year, but they don’t return a single WR that caught a pass in either game. Cam Newton’s sore ribs could be more of a factor, especially if Gerald McCoy can plant him into the turf early on. There could be a lot of sacks here, as both defensive lines hold advantages over the opposing OL.

Buccaneers 17, Panthers 15

San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys--The 49ers might not miss Aldon Smith and Navorro Bowman, their two best defensive players, any more than they will against Dallas’ explosive offense. Yeah they’ve still got Patrick Willis, but he can only do so much. San Francisco should (should!) have a lot of success pounding Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde at the toothless Dallas defense, but I’m not sure Colin Kaepernick will make enough great throws to a receiving corps I still don’t trust to put up more points than what Dallas throws on the scoreboard. I like the home underdog (DAL +4.5) and I’ll put $500 on them.

Dallas 33, San Francisco 31

Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos--Tough opener for Andrew Luck, having to face a fully stocked Denver defense in the Mile High city. I do think the Colts will find success in attacking with tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener, and getting Reggie Wayne back certainly helps the cause. It’s hard to match Peyton Manning throwing to Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and impressive-looking rookie Cody Latimer if you can’t run the ball, and these Colts need to prove they can run before I believe it. Luck will have to pull yet another rabbit out of his hat to win this one. Maybe it’s hiding in his hideous neck beard…

Broncos 34, Colts 24

Monday Night

New York Giants at Detroit Lions--The Lions host the Monday Night Football opener for the first time since 1971, and they hold a huge matchup advantage in the defensive front seven against New York’s remade offensive line and a skittish, out of sync Eli Manning. Joseph Fauria waves “bye bye bye” as Glover Quin runs back a Manning interception forced by a Jason Jones pressure, sweet payback for Will Hill’s pick-six in last year’s Week 16 contest that eliminated Detroit from the playoffs. New York’s defense should be game, but they can’t hold down Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, Reggie Bush and Joique Bell forever. If the Lions don’t win this one, it’s going to be a long season in Motown. I’ll wager $500 on Detroit -4.5.

Lions 27, Giants 13

San Diego Chargers at Arizona Cardinals--I’d like to thank the NFL for this second Monday night treat. It will make perfect background noise as I wrap up my coverage of the Lions game, better than watching Family Guy reruns for the 42nd time or a baseball game entering its fourth hour and seventh pitching change. I have both these teams making the playoffs, and Arizona’s march kicks off with a victory. I expect versatile RB Andre Ellington to have a big game.

Cardinals 30, Chargers 28

Wagering summary:

DAL +4.5 for $500

DET -4.5 for $500

MIN +6.5 for $500

PIT -5.5 for $1500

2014 Season Preview: AFC North

By Ron Marmalefsky

Baltimore Ravens:           

2013 RECORD: 8-8  
2012 RECORD: 10-6   
2011 RECORD: 12-4   
2010 RECORD: 12-4   

Team Overview: Antoine Bolden.  Sure, the Ravens needed to pay Flacco and sure they knew many solid players would be tough to retain, but the hasty decision to trade Bolden despite being not so far off in contract $$$ was the biggest blow to the team.  Bolden is an amazingly sure-handed WR who made the big 3rd down catch all season long, and played lights out in the playoffs.  His absence contributed to these Ravens not moving the chains as well and to Flacco’s sudden turnover tendencies.  What looked like a train wreck last March did turn better by draft time as Baltimore drafted well and added some experienced talent once out of cap “jail”.  Obviously, losing Ray Lewis hurt in more ways than one, but expectations are that these Ravens will not be in transition long.  Always draft savvy, Baltimore added solid players to each level of the defense.  All eyes are on the ’14 offense as both Joe Flacco as well as Ray Rice look to rebound off poor performances a season ago. 

Key Stats: For at least the previous 19 years the run D has been super.  The ’13 version continued their run at allowing under 4.0 per carry.  The pass D% stayed stout at under 57% (4th).  Opponents completed just 33% on 3rd down.  The offense lagged behind.  Baltimore allowed 48 sacks, tied for 29th.  The overall offense was also 29th.  The team had leveled off running the ball but hit a new low in ’13.  They were last at 3.1 per carry and 30th at 83 yards per game.  Joe Flacco threw 22 interceptions, causing the usually decent turnover ratio to slip to -5.  Baltimore needs to reduce penalties after leading the NFL in that statistic in ’13.  Spread-wise, Baltimore dropped to 10-2 off a bye, remained 13-6 as a MNF host, and by losing their final road game saw their spread record in that situation fall to 7-16. 

Free Agency and Staff Notes: The biggest acquisition is solid WR Steve Smith.  Baltimore lost OT Oher, FB Leach, TE Dickson, DE Arthur Jones, LB McClain and CB Corey Graham.  All of these guys are decent but not elite.   TE Owen Daniels could be a nice signing.  Gary Kubiak is the new Offensive Coordinator and this is a good role for him. 

2014 Draft: Baltimore is the best at letting the draft come to them.  Many teams wanted to take away pick 17 but the Ravens were honed in on Mosley.  Jernigan had value at 48 and so did Brooks at 76, largely due to the drop in talent at safety after this.  Baltimore addressed most areas on my draft need board, yet failed to adequately address OL or DB!  Remember, the run game was last in yards-per-carry in ’13.  Was that wise? 

Roster Analysis:

QB: Flacco hit 59% with a 19-22 ratio.  He needs to play better than that.

RB: Ray Rice hopes new OC Kubiak’s zone blocking scheme is a success.  Rookie Taliaferro adds needed depth.

WR: Steve Smith isn’t as physical as Boldin but a solid upgrade.  Five players in total mean more depth than a year ago.

TE: Dennis Pitta played just four games in ’13.  Owen Daniels and rookie Crockett Gilmore gives this team a solid TE unit.

OL: I like Jeremy Zuttah over incumbent Gino Gradkowski at OC.  RT is the spot to watch and a possible weak link.

DL: It appears that NT Cody will start ’14 on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list.  Nagata is elite but the overall unit is a bit thin.  How fast can rookie DT Jernigan contribute?

LB: Deep, and 2nd year LB Arthur Brown and rookie CJ Mosley could eventually make this unit very impactful.

CB: An injury to Jimmy Smith could stunt progress in the secondary.  The unit is decent but not top five or maybe top 10 decent.

Safety: Free safety is an issue as the rookie Brooks won’t likely be perfect out of the gate.  Matt Elam has all-pro potential at SS but there is little to no quality depth.

Special Teams: This unit is deep all around and one of the NFL’s best.

Coaching: John Harbaugh is an above average head coach.  DC Dean Pees is average at best.  I like the promise of adding OC Gary Kubiak to the mix. 

Team Keys: Joe Flacco was elite in the ’12 playoffs but prior to that he was a top 8-12 QB.  Where will he be in ’14?  Watch his QB% and the # of interceptions.  The OL (especially RT) is a must watch area after allowing 48 sacks.  Can they improve upon a putrid 3.1 yards-per-carry figure?  

Did the preseason mean anything? Joe Flacco had his 3rd straight strong preseason but hopes the ’14 regular season will be kinder than it was a year ago.  More interesting was the fact that all Raven RB’s were poor last August, leading to record lows in the ’13 season.  The #’s were better now.  For trivia buffs, the Baltimore Ravens have two WR’s named Smith, one named Jones and one named Brown.  For the record these are the top WR’s on the team!  Newcomer Steve Smith is ready to go, adding toughness to the unit.  TE Pitta is healthy and so overall this should be a bounce-back season for the offense.  Pass protection looks average.  Baltimore was a whopping +10:09 in time of possession in August.  That means the defense wasn’t on the field quite enough for my liking, yet it looks like LB’s Arthur Brown and rookie CJ Mosley got in enough work as they led the team in tackles.  The concerns are a lack of depth along the DL and nagging injuries to many of the defensive backs.  Rookie Michael Campanaro may return kicks although his punt return average was low.  Sacks look about average.  Baltimore was 4-0 in the preseason and hopes this momentum carries over to the regular season.  

Strategy and Bottom Line Analysis: Ray Rice won’t play in weeks 1-2 but Baltimore hopes Bernard Pierce is ready to carry the load.  Games 1-3 are vs. all of their AFC North rivals.  They host Cincy 9/7 and Pittsburgh on Thursday, 9/11 so a 2-0 start would be very meaningful.  They beat Cincy 44-13 the last time they opened vs. the Bengals.  Any Baltimore-Pittsburgh game is brutal (and close), so having 10 days to recover is nice.  Game #4 is hosting Carolina, and WR Steve Smith will be pumped up for that one.  An early trap game might be 10/12 at Tampa.  This one comes after a game at Indy and before a revenge game from ’10 in a host of Atlanta.  The bye comes 11/16.  The Ravens will have played nine games, and five of them will be vs. Divisional foes!   In fact, the Ravens will not face Cincy or Pittsburgh after 11/2!  I expect at least 6-4 before their late bye week, and 7-3 should be in play if the right side of the OL can protect Flacco and if Ray Rice returns to form.  Games 11-12 are tricky.  The Ravens travel to New Orleans for a Monday game and host San Diego the following Sunday.  San Diego will want revenge for the 4th and 26 “miracle” run by Ray Rice which ultimately was the biggest reason why the Ravens even had a chance to get to and win the Super Bowl.  The goal is to split these games.  Games against Miami (12/7, at Miami) are usually close.  December is manageable, with the Ravens facing far easier QB’s late (Jacksonville, Houston, Cleveland).  These teams went 10-38 in ’13. 

Bottom Line: Baltimore looks like a better team now and won’t have to improve much over 8-8 to make the playoffs.  I’ll be watching the play of the young LB’s, the health of the secondary and the progression of Joe Flacco.  He may get sacked some but Pitta and Steve Smith elevate the aerial game and I fully expect Joe to get his completion % over 60.  I see 9-7 if they can start at least 3-1 and more than that if they can avoid losing the trap games on their schedule. 

Key Games: 9/7 vs. Cincy, and the two trap games, 10/12 at Tampa and 11/9 hosting Tennessee.  Cincy has two new coordinators.  A loss at home to start the season erases the memory of a solid August.  Baltimore has a good shot to be more than 2-2 in games vs. Cincy and Pittsburgh.  Still, going 2-2 works if they take care of business at Tampa and home to Tennessee. 

Handicapping Tip: The Ravens are 5-14 against the spread as a non-Divisional road favorite.  Tampa on 10/12 might be a home dog and remember that game is not one where I expect the Ravens to be focused. 


Cincinnati Bengals:           

2013 RECORD: 11-5  
2012 RECORD:  10-6   
2011 RECORD: 9-7   
2010 RECORD: 4-12   

Team Overview: In Detroit, I often refer to the “good” Matthew Stafford as well as the “bad” Matthew Stafford.  He is not alone.  Andy Dalton has days where he looks special, but on other days he looks like Carson Palmer.  He’s the field general of a Bengal team that is as deep as it’s ever been thanks to an incredible (for them) run of solid drafts.  Almost no position is below the level of average and this team is young and still has upside.  In addition, the AFC is hardly as scary as the NFC, especially at the top.  Cincy’s somewhat surprising playoff loss to SD underscores the fact that much more needs to be accomplished before they can be taken seriously.  While nothing less than at least one playoff win will be tolerated in ’14, Cincy faces additional challenges with the loss of both coordinators.  It’s time for Dalton to take the next step.  In fact, it’s essential that he do so if Cincy is to be successful in ending the NFL’s longest playoff victory drought (23 years). 

Key Stats: RB Green-Ellis was joined in the backfield by change of pace rookie Bernard in a solid move yet the yards-per-carry # was still too low at 3.6.  The OL made great strides in protecting Dalton by reducing sacks from 46 to 29.  The team was more than playoff worthy with over 1,000 more total yards than their opponents, 22 more TD’s and a +4:01 time of possession figure.  Cincy’s well-coached D was #2 in yards per attempt, #3 in total defense and on 3rd down allowed about a 33% conversion rate.  They also allowed just six run TD’s.  Spread-wise, Cincy is most dangerous at home in December when OUT of the playoff chase (2-3 in ’11-12 when IN the playoff race) but in ’13 they went 3-0 against the spread in December.  Cincy is usually a well below average home favorite prior to December but was 3-0 in this role in ’13.  They went 8-0 vs. the spread at home until the playoff loss.

Free Agency and Staff Notes:  Cincy is normally not a big spender in free agency.  OG Newhouse might be a nice addition.  LB Dontay Moch was waived by Arizona and signed by the Bengals.  Losses include starting OT Collins and OC Kyle Cook, and good DE Michael Johnson.  Hue Jackson once took one of the worst all time offenses in Oakland to top five status in one year.  He replaces Jay Gruden as Offensive Coordinator.  Former LB coach Paul Guenther has big shoes to fill, taking over for star defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. 

2014 Draft: It was quite clear that Cincy wanted a CB early in this draft.  The Bengals have to be thrilled that press CB Dennard slipped to them at 24.  It’s now also very clear that Cincy wants to upgrade from RB Green-Ellis.  They could have chosen RB Hyde but decided to take a risk with Hill.  They are close in on-field talent but Hill has plenty of off-field baggage.  DE Clarke is the (hopeful) answer to losing Michael Johnson via free agency.  This following might be the single most amazing statement from this draft.  The Cincy Bengals traded up in this draft for only the 3rd time in the past 47 years!  Think about that!  47 drafts, and there used to be double digit rounds.  We’re not talking the 1st round, but all rounds!  Unfortunately, the trade was unnecessary and the player chosen was a lower rated center.  OL, LB and WR were on the need board, but Cincy did not live up to past standards and chose the wrong players.  They should have addressed LB earlier.  WR Wright was a reach in a draft full of WR talent.  The draft after round two lacked value and impact.

Roster Analysis:

QB: Andy Dalton is a fine QB but has limitations as far as cracking a top 10 list.

RB: Giovani Bernard and rookie Jeremy Hill represent the future at RB, with reliable and fumble free Green-Ellis likely seeing his last year of action as a Bengal.  

WR: AJ Green has cracked the top 3 in the NFL.  Sanu is the underneath presence.  Marvin Jones has been surprisingly solid, but has an undisclosed injury that needs to be checked.  Cincy blew a chance at adding talent in this all-time great WR draft.

TE: Gresham and Eifort form a solid combination.  Decent back-up Orson Charles may be the odd man out. 

OL: Four of five spots are at least solid, but center is an issue which is why they drafted Bodine.  Sacks allowed will go up.

DL: Geno Atkins comes off IR but the other three starters are just average.  Let’s see if rookie DE Clarke and 2nd year DE Hunt can contribute a bit earlier than expected. 

LB: Maualuga and Burfict are heady players but not big contributors in the offensive backfield.  Free agent pickup Moch can help but the unit lacks a true 3rd starter.

CB: Better at CB with Dennard, Newman and Adam Jones, and the upside is even higher if ’12 draftee Kirkpatrick can improve.  Is Kirkpatrick ready to be a full time starter in year #2?  Leon Hall may start ahead of Kirkpatrick and Dennard. 

Safety: Nelson remains serviceable.  Taylor Mays is best used as a nickel DB.  George Iloka was undervalued by my standards on draft day and starts, but is not elite by any means.  Daniel Manning adds depth.

Special Teams: The unit is decent but not spectacular in any area.  The need return specialist Tate to make the final cut.

Coaching: New offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is going to be just fine, if not even better than that.  New DC Paul Guenther must be constantly evaluated.  How much will the defense miss Mike Zimmer? 

Team Keys: Cincy is awful in prime time games.  When can that change?  I’m worried about offensive pass protection and defensive sacks trending bit down.  Will fumbles increase if they phase out RB Green-Ellis?  Check how well Geno Atkins bounces back off a torn ACL and how the new DC performs.

Did the preseason mean anything? Cincy’s offense was pretty good in August.  Surprisingly, RB Bernard ran poorly at 20-49 but rookie Jeremy Hill ran 41-190.  Dalton was over 70% and took none of the eight sacks allowed by the OL.  AJ Green caught 10 and Mohammad Sanu 7 as he tries to rebound from a sophomore slump.  Blowing the chance to add one or more rated WR’s in the deep ’14 draft has made the unit somewhat thin.  TE’s Gresham and Eifert are solid but continue to be underutilized.  Defensively, the run D was a bit off but I like the effort from Hunt and others resulting in 12 defensive sacks.  I believe the thinnest unit is LB but overall the Bengals have talent to spare.  Special teams play is steady. 

Strategy and Bottom Line Analysis: Like Baltimore, Cincy looks ready to start ’14.  They have not fared well at Baltimore but stealing a win there on opening day would be ideal.  Atlanta is potent offensively and could give Cincy a challenge 9/14.  The Bengals have the early bye, giving them a huge scheduling advantage (14 vs. 6 days) when they travel to face New England.  Can they focus the next week when hosting Carolina?  This now more veteran team should be able to achieve 3-3 prior to a winnable three game home stand vs. Baltimore, Jacksonville and Cleveland.  Unfortunately, that is immediately following by road games at New Orleans, Houston and Tampa.  How is life without Mike Zimmer calling the defensive signals?  Can they get to 7-5 before December?  Here is the December slate: Pittsburgh (11-20 record as a host), at Cleveland (50%), home on MNF to Denver and Peyton Manning and at Pittsburgh.  Playing Pittsburgh twice in December is not ideal as the Steelers are usually on their game by this time.  The Bengals need to build up some equity before the calendar turns to December. 

Bottom Line: 8-8?  That sure seems low for a team with no glaring weakness, and will be low if they steal a win right out of the gate.  I like Dalton as a top 10-15 type QB and the offense will be fine.  I like the ’14 sack ratio projection.  On paper they appear dead even with Baltimore.  I’m concerned about fumbles and even more concerned about how they handle the prime time schedule.  No, I wouldn’t be surprised if they exceeded this projection. 

Key Game: There are so many it’s hard to isolate one, but 9/14 vs. Atlanta stands out.  This will be a great test of their defensive prowess in the post Mike Zimmer era. 

Handicapping Tip: The spread loser of the initial game vs. Pittsburgh is 20-9 vs. the spread in meeting #2.  In this case, a Cincy win 12/7 would set them up for a spread loss 12/28 as the Steelers are 18-6 vs. the spread in the final game of the season. 


Cleveland Browns:            

2013 RECORD: 4-12  
2012 RECORD: 5-11   
2011 RECORD: 4-12   
2010 RECORD: 5-11   

Team Overview: Welcome to stupid!  That is what I wrote 25 months ago and what I repeated 12 months ago when beginning to compile the ’13 draft report.  Going into last year’s draft I felt that these Browns had a chance to compete in the AFC North, certainly a Division in transition.  Instead, Cleveland never fully participated in the draft, missing a golden opportunity.  Like other “experts”, I questioned the draft team of Banner and Lombardi, two well below standard talent evaluators.  Once again they underperformed.  Honestly, how did they expect their new coach to win given the opening day roster? Remember, Cleveland did not even have a kicker until 48 hours before the season started!  Cleveland begins ’14 with yet another new coach, as beleaguered owner Haslam never gave Rob Chudzinski and his decent coordinators a chance.  This will be their 9th head coach since ’99!  Cleveland is 26-70 the past six seasons and have lost 10 games or more in all but one of the last 11 seasons.  Did the new regime make the right moves and close the gap in the AFC North?  The answer is yes, and no.  This was the deepest draft I’ve covered (37 of them) and the Browns at one time had 11 picks in this draft.  They ended up drafting just six players!  At least the six guys they got had some nice ratings (see below).  

Key Stats: Offensively, Cleveland scored 308 points a year after scoring 302, and two years after scoring far less than that (13.5 per game).   The run O actually improved without traded RB Richardson (4.0) but was still low at 86.4 per game.  They scored just four rush TD’s.  Sacks allowed were high at 49, with their collection of QB’s mostly to blame.  The “new” Cleveland Browns had their best ever run D figures in their history, at 111-3.9.  One area not perfect defensively was the high 44.5% conversion rate on 3rd down for their opponents.  Overall however the Brown’s total D (total yards allowed) came in 9th 

Free Agency and Staff Notes: Offensively, only Brian Hoyer is left at QB.  Ben Tate is an instant upgrade at RB.  Troubled WR Davone Bess was released, replaced by Nate Burleson.  OG Shawn Lavano left.  Defensively, Carlos Dansby is a good player but why not just re-sign younger LB D’Qwell Jackson?  Adding Donte Whitner does not quite make up for losing solid safety T.J. Ward.  Mike Pettine is the new Head Coach.  He’s had a successful, though short career as a defensive coordinator.  Kyle Shanahan and his “less than outstanding” ability to work well with others is the new offensive coordinator.  Co-conspirator’s Banner and Lombardi were axed early in ’14.  The young and very self-confident Ray Farmer is the sole GM.  

2014 Draft: Cleveland barely participated in the ’13 draft but that, coupled with the fortuitous trade of RB Trent Richardson set them up with seven of the first 127 picks in this deep draft.   The trade with Buffalo was grand larceny but cost them WR Watkins.  That could have been fixed later but in a shocking move the Browns ignored WR completely!  In the end, Richardson and pick 83 got them Johnny Manziel.  Kirksey fit a need though I’m not 3rd round high on him.  Cleveland traded up to get a promising RB and got lucky when no one traded up to get Desir, the next best CB on the board.  As a result, Cleveland was able to double up at CB.  Amazingly, Cleveland was done after this, with 129 picks left in this DEEP draft.  Why?  NOTE: Cleveland added my 10th rated QB, Shaw, and my 14th rated RB, Crowell after the draft.  Shaw has the makings of a good NFL back-up with a never say die attitude, although he stands just 6’ tall and lacks true athleticism.  Crowell has off-field issues.  When motivated he is a top tier RB who can start in the NFL.  Cleveland also added WR Snead (Ball St.).  He was unrated but the Browns needs help at WR and though slow he was seemingly always open playing with drafted QB Keith Wenning.  

Roster Analysis:

QB: Brian Hoyer has a limited body of work.  The dynamic, but undisciplined Johnny Manziel is way too young.  Growing pains?

RB: Tate seems like an upgrade over Richardson but he’s never been the true feature guy.  Dion Lewis and a very interesting rookie, Terrance West are the back-ups.

WR: Former supplemental draftee Gordon “should” be facing a minimum eight game suspension, but so far nothing has been done.  Nate Burleson, Travis Benjamin, Miles Austin and Earl Bennett are the choices otherwise.

TE: Jordan Cameron took everyone by surprise, but here is the real breakdown.  In games 1-8 he was 49-596-6.  In games 9-15 he was 26-252-3.  He was 5-69 in the meaningless last game vs. then 7-8 Pittsburgh.  There is no other viable TE option.

OL: USA Today said both OG spots needed upgrading.  Rookie Bitonio alled two sacks in 2,054 career college snaps and probably starts on day one.  John Greco might be the other OG by default.  The rest of the OL is just fine.

DL: I like Phil Taylor in a 3-4 alignment.  The line may not be elite but is easily serviceable. 

LB: Dansby joins Paul Kruger and Jabeal Sheard to make three of the four LB spots pretty solid.  Situational sacker Mingo helps, but the full time ILB vacancy is being filled by the very average Craig Robertson.  Rookie Kirksey provides a challenge.

CB: Joe Haden is an all-pro but Buster Skrine is just another body.  Rookies Gilbert and Desir add depth and in Gilbert’s case, hopefully he unseats Skrine at some point soon.  ’13 rookie CB McFadden fits the nickel role. 

Safety: TJ Ward is will be missed.  Free agent Whitner is a step back, and SS Gipson is a marginal starter.  Only the raw, but somewhat instinctive Jordan Poyer backs them up.  This is an area of concern.

Special Teams: Cundiff hit 21-26 but was a step back from Dawson.  Gilbert could upgrade the return game.

Coaching: Mike Pettine has had a short ascension to the top, but he’s well regarded defensively.  Why he chose Kyle Shanahan to be the offensive coordinator puzzles me.  Pettine brought his Buffalo LB coach with him to Cleveland to be the new OC.

Team Keys: Offensively, QB, RB and WR play will all have to be closely monitored.  How does the point O rise?  Can the solid OL protect for these raw QB’s?  The team has won just once in their last 22 road games when an underdog.  At what point can they get over this hump?  

Did the preseason mean anything? Cleveland’s week four performance saved them from entering this season with some really poor numbers.  Still, Hoyer and his three game NFL sample size hit just 54.5% in August.  As for Manziel, he performed as expected by making more splash plays, good and bad.  He was under 51% with 6 sacks taken.  Can Ben Tate carry the workload?  He was an efficient 4.0 in August.  Reserves West (rookie, 2.7) and Crowell (UFA, 7.0 but very raw) are very likely to need plenty more seasoning.  With Gordon suspended, the WR group is as follows: Miles Austin (3 catches); Andrew Hawkins (5’7”, 8 for 76); LaRon Byrd (0); Travis Benjamin (1 catch, return specialist, not 100%; Taylor Gabriel (5’8”, complete unknown 10-128).  This was the deepest draft ever for WR’s.  Thanks for not participating!  TE Cameron was a fine 19-187 in the three games Hoyer was at QB, but he was also 31-321 in game 9-16 last year so his fast start could not be sustained.  All defensive #’s were decent, although Cleveland only recorded six sacks.  I do think the combination of Mingo and Kruger will up that during the season and the interior of the DL might repeat their decent run D performance of ’13.  Under then DC Horton that figure was easily their best ever.  The team lacks depth but the starters can play and CB Joe Haden is elite.  The return game should be fine.  The kicking game is average at best. 

Strategy and Bottom Line Analysis: Cleveland underachieved in ’13 thanks to ignoring the draft and having spotty QB play.  There is no grace period in ’14 as the Browns face Pittsburgh twice, New Orleans, Baltimore and Tennessee in games 1-5.  The road opener at Pittsburgh is just the 2nd time in 16 years that they open on the road.  Of course since they only won once at home during that time span why not try the road?  Some analysts dislike the placement of their week four bye, but I like it for two reasons.  First, games 1-3 are so tough that the Browns will need a break and second, new coaches with early byes have a chance to regroup and make scheme and practice schedule changes before it is too late to do so.  The game is fast for rookies in the NFL and just as fast for rookie head coaches.  Yes, they play 13 in a row without a break, but most of the games are Sunday at 1:00PM, enabling them to get into a nice routine.  Cleveland plays only one team who had a winning record in ’13 in games 4-12.  The Browns hope to be at least 3-2 if not better than that in games 6-10 which are at Jacksonville, home to Oakland and Tampa, at Cincy and home to Houston.  December is much tougher as they face a trio of double digit win teams and close at always tough Baltimore, where they have lost 10 of the last 11 games. 

Bottom Line: I applaud this organization for gutting the GM and his cohorts but they’ve missed golden opportunities to add even more talent in these past two drafts.  Is Hoyer the guy?  Can Ben Tate carry the load?  How about Miles Austin, the only true WR on this team?  The best I can see is 5-6 heading to a game at Atlanta, and 7-9 if they steal a win at home vs. Cincy, a team that they are near 50% against at home.  More than likely the record will be worse than that, especially if the offense cannot contribute. 

Key Game: 9/21 vs. Baltimore.  Most likely the Browns lose at Pittsburgh and home to New Orleans.  Baltimore has 10 days to prepare for Cleveland and has won here before but Cleveland did upset them last year.  0-3 before the bye would not be a good start, but two weeks off at 1-2 would be a confidence boost.  Handicapping Tip: I don’t have any long term indicators for this team as they are now working on their 9th new head coach since 1999!  The setup on 10/12 at home vs. Pittsburgh is pretty good.


Pittsburgh Steelers:           

2013 RECORD: 8-8  
2012 RECORD: 8-8   
2011 RECORD: 12-4   
2010 RECORD: 12-4   

Team Overview: Pittsburgh is in very unusual territory, coming off back to back non-winning seasons.  Never one to start fast in September, there just was too much ground to make up following close losses to Baltimore and hosting Miami.  A team like the Steelers just needs to get into the playoffs and except for two blown referee calls in the SD-KC game these Steelers would have actually made the postseason.  Once there, it would NOT have surprised me to see them do some major damage, just like other lower playoff seeds have done in recent times.  No other NFL team has been successful in succession planning for as long as Pittsburgh has, but recent drafts have not quite been as powerful as in the past.  Since the Steelers are one of a few teams that shies away from the free agency market, the draft and young player development becomes absolutely critical.  At 1st glance, the ’14 draft might pay more immediate dividends as compared to the recent past.  It’s playoffs or bust for ’14. 

Key Stats: The Steelers were just 0-2 in games decided by three points or less, but combined with ‘12’s 3-5 mark the close games are not going their way.  In games 1-8 Pitt had a -13 turnover ratio, a 13-32 sack ratio and an over 61% pass D.  All three of these numbers are not even close to past Steeler performance!  In addition, the run O was 3.5-73.5 and the run D was 4.25-131.  What was going on?  Pitt finished 6-2, and the numbers showed why.  The turnover ratio was +7.  The sack ratio was 21-11.  The pass was 181-329, or about 55%.  The run O remained about 3.5 but at 100 yards per game.  The run D was 184-819 and that is awfully high for a team used to being in the top three.  In the end the Steeler pass D% was 5th best.  One area that must improve is defensive interceptions.  Pitt had 10 in ’13 and that has been about their norm.  Spread-wise, Pitt is a good bounce back team, going 23-9 off a 20+ point loss (1-0), 24-10 (1-1) off back-to-back spread losses, and 25-10 (1-0) at home off a home loss.  They are 25-16 on MNF not counting a 2-5 road favorite record, 56-39 (2-3) as a non-Divisional home favorite and 18-6 in home finales.  On the negative side, they dropped to 6-20 in road openers.  They remain 2-12 as a road favorite of more than 3 points but were 0-2 at exactly -3 in ’13.  Pitt improved to 22-34 (2-1) off back-to-back straight up and spread wins, and 14-32 (3-0) after scoring over 30 points.  Their overall spread situations hit well over 60% in ’11, and 9-5 with an 8-8 record in ’12 but dropped to 10 of 22 last year for their 1st below average figure. 

Free Agency and Staff Notes: Pitt never big player in free agency but this year they made more moves than usual.  The offense added RB Blount and WR’s Lance Moore and Darius Heyward-Bey.  They lose WR’s Cotchery and Sanders and these two combined for 113-1342-16 TD’s!  LB Moats will be a reserve, but DL Cam Thomas and safety Mike Mitchell may have to start.  Rotational DL Hood and Woods left, as did starting LB Woodley and starting safety Ryan Clark.  

2014 Draft: LB Shazier was rapidly becoming a 1st round target for many teams.  It’s unclear as to whether or not they wanted CB Fuller (went at 14), but I believe Shazier was drafted because the severe injury to ’12 draftee Spence left a void Pittsburgh was anxious to fill.  It has been well documented that Pittsburgh has been aging along the DL.  Tuitt has value at 46 and fits the #1 need.  Gadget WR/RB Archer is the modern version for Pittsburgh’s Randle-EL but was drafted a round too early.  Pittsburgh has a longstanding nasty habit of selecting lower rated developmental CB’s.  They have not taken a CB in the 1st round sine ’97 and this was the year to do so!  The Steelers added some semblance of talent throughout the draft but failed miserably at CB and safety and ignored the need for RB speed (unless Archer shifts to that spot).  I’d have taken CB Dennard at #15 and a higher rated OL at #97, waiting on Archer.  NOTE: Pittsburgh added * rated DE Mauro and * rated LB Howard Jones after the draft.  Mauro has rotational value.  He’s not a sacker and lacks flexibility but is a physical tackler.  Jones (Shepard College) was a college DE with speed but he’s too undersized to stay there.  He’s a project.

Roster Analysis:

QB: Ben Roethlisberger is my 5th best NFL QB.  The backups remain a liability.

RB: MSU RB Bell was 800-3.5-8 as a rookie (late start).  Blount adds power.  Will they get suspended (stupidity)?  That’s it.

WR: Moore and Wheaton hope to replace Sanders and Cotchery behind Brown.  Heyward-Bey + raw rookie Bryant add depth.

TE: Heath Miller is more than solid.  Everyone else is more of a filler type (i.e. short use role player).

OL: DeCastro and Pouncey are strong.  Four others have solid experience but are average.  Is Beachum really a LT?  The line is beginning to come together but is not going to be listed among the top 10.

DL: Pitt’s transition plan has gained steam.  Tuitt and Cam Thomas are in.  Heyward is good.  NT McLendon has issues.  Thin?

LB: The decent group may include ’13 draftee Jarvis Jones and rookie Shazier.  The back-ups are not great.  Will Spence play?

CB: Ike Taylor and William Guy return, but is Guy that good?  Cortez Allen is the only other option in a fairly weak group.

Safety: Polamalu may be on his last legs.  Either the average Mike Mitchell or 2nd year safety Shamarko Thomas will join him.

Special Teams: Suisham delivered in ’12 and ’13.  Rookies Bryant and Archer might wrestle away returning chores from the too valuable Antonio Brown.  Archer had just two kick returns in college in ’13, but it was with a 62 yard average.

Coaching: Tomlin is well above average.  LeBeau is in the Hall of Fame.  OC Haley is a lightning rod but production is improving.

Team Keys: Almost an exact repeat of last year.  The keys are clear.  Their names are NT McClendon, CB Cortez, the #2/#3 WR’s and OC Haley.  NT is always critical in this scheme.  McClendon may not talented enough?  Is Cortez ready to be a starter?  Gay and Cortez are experienced in the system but individually they are well below par for starting CB’s.  Can Lance Moore and Wheaton assist Brown in the pass scheme?  Can OC Haley co-exist with Big Ben?  It looks like they are doing a better job together but it could all fall apart.  I’d like to see the run O rise above 3.5 per carry.  Can new OL coach Mike Munchak make a difference?  Is there any way Pittsburgh sheds its image of a slow starter? 

Did the preseason mean anything? No team wants to play Pittsburgh late in the season but everyone likes to play them in September and October.  The Steelers started 0-3 in ’13 and this August they scored just 14 points per game.  In just the four preseason games they were -34 in 1st downs, had a 3.4 to 4.3 rush ratio, a 6-12 sack ratio and allowed 63% defensively.  Big Ben looked decent but I do expect their usual 40 or so sacks allowed.  RB’s Bell and Blount combined to go just 34-109 and that is not a good sign.  The good news is that all WR’s and TE Miller look improved over ’13.  Rookie LB Ryan Shazier will start alongside 2nd year LB Jarvis Jones and veterans Worilds and Timmons, making this unit the best on their defense.  The DL is a worry.  I noted last year that NT McLendon would not be the answer.  Pittsburgh hopes one of the very young rookies takes over in the long run but they felt compelled to bring back DL Keisel a week ago even though he’s hardly in football shape.  Dick LeBeau is an excellent coach and teacher but his secondary is aging and there has never been a viable succession plan.  Dri Archer has potential in the return game.  The punter is average.

Strategy and Bottom Line Analysis: Pittsburgh has a decent schedule but face the challenge of navigating through five prime time games as well as being the ONLY NFL team with four sets of back-to-back road games.  Opening hosting Cleveland “should” be a win, but to be honest I’m not sure this team is 100% ready once again this September.  Baltimore looks more ready and hosts them on 9/11 (Thursday).  Games involving these two teams are the best in the NFL (yes, even slightly ahead of SF-Seattle).  They will have 10 days to regroup before going to Carolina.  The next set of consecutive road games will find them favored at Jacksonville and Cleveland.  On paper this looks easy enough but in reality this team has struggled mightily in October road games.  After a nice three game home stand Pittsburgh travels to face the Jets and Titans.  There is an extra day between trips to the Jets and the Titans as that Titan game is on Monday night.  The bye week is late, coming November 23rd.  The only tough road trip comes in December.  Pittsburgh comes off a home game vs. New Orleans before traveling to Cincy and Atlanta.  Closing games are at home to KC and Cincy. 

Bottom Line : Is this the year Pittsburgh gets off to a better start?  The toughest stretch prior to December is vs. Houston (Monday night), Indy and Baltimore (Sunday night), but all three games are at home!  The NFL scheduled both Baltimore-Pittsburgh games in prime time, perhaps due to the fact that nine of the last 11 meetings have been decided by three points or less.  Pittsburgh’s Monday game at Tennessee is the only time they play away from the Eastern Time zone!  Last year I warned readers that trap games at Oakland and at Miami would be very difficult.  Pittsburgh lost both games.  Win one of these and this dangerous team makes the ’13 playoffs.  The Steelers might be favored on the road about five times this season.  Focus might be an issue once or twice, but the only real trap game is facing Atlanta on the road in December after traveling to Cincy but given the time of year I don’t think the game really qualifies as a trap.  Despite offensive woes, my biggest concerns are the age of the DL and the talent and age in the secondary.  I see them 2-2 before heading to Jacksonville and Cleveland, but no better than 3-3 and no better than 5-4 after their three game home stand.  If they split road games at the NYJ and Tennessee and win as expected in games 15-16 the record would be 8-5 not counting games hosting New Orleans and at Cincy and Atlanta.  It sure would be nice if Pitt played better this October and entered these games with more than 6 wins. 

Key Games: 10/5 and 10/12 on the road at Jacksonville and Cleveland.  Win both of these games and the AFC North race will be wild in December.  Parts of this team look better than their rivals, but Baltimore and Cincy have no real weak areas and Pittsburgh has a few more concerns, especially related to the secondary and the DL.  Handicapping Tip: Pittsburgh is 2-12 their last 14 against the spread as a road favorite of over 3 points and is 8-18 as a road favorite in October.  These “demons” must be met head on in those aforementioned October road games. 


2014 NFL Season Predictions: The AFC

The Patriots are loaded and have one of the easiest paths to the playoffs and should comfortably win their division, which could setup another trip to the Super Bowl.

Initial 2015 NFL Mock Draft

Marcus Mariota and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu are two Oregon Ducks at the top of our first mock draft for 2015 ahead of Sammie Coates, Vic Beasley and Andrus Peat.

The Best Pick For Every Team

The Texans may have picked the LeBron James of the NFL, Vikings had a jackpot pick in Teddy Bridgewater, a potential new No. 1 WR for the Saints and the other best picks for each team.

Post Draft Report – Way Too Early First Impressions (AFC Edition)

The Browns, Bills, Texans and Jaguars made the most noise in the draft.

Round 1 Thoughts, Looking Ahead At Round 2

This was indeed a deep draft, with more prospects than ever evaluated as worthy of being drafted, but it was still filled with surprises.

Rules Of Thumb Following The First Round

Great first rounds for the Rams, the NFC North as a whole, Bengals and Chargers, while the Eagles and Patriots received thumbs down, while Cleveland had the most intriguing night.