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NFL Preview: AFC North

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The Sports Xchange

One week before the 2015 regular season begins, here is a snapshot of the AFC North teams through the eyes of Sports Xchange correspondents covering each team.

Next week The Sports Xchange will analyze every unit on every team and project order of finish in each division

Teams here are listed in alphabetical order:

BALTIMORE RAVENS

2014 RECORD: 11-7

DIVISIONAL RECORD: 3-3

COACH: John Harbaugh

8th season as Ravens

8th season as NFL head coach

82-45 overall; 10-5 postseason

–TEAM STRENGTH: Entering training camp, the Ravens’ offensive line was supposed to be the strength of the team. However, that unit has battled injuries most of camp. The Ravens linebackers, however, remain one of the fiercest units in the NFL.

Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs is the leader of the unit and is entering his 13th season. Suggs has made the Pro Bowl six times and was the NFL’s 2011 Defensive Player of the Year. He took some criticism for appearing to be a bit overweight in the June OTAs, but has been solid throughout training camp and will be a force again.

Inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, a first round draft pick last season, started 16 games and made the Pro Bowl. He finished with 133 tackles, eight pass deflections, three sacks, two pass interceptions, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery. The other inside linebacker, Daryl Smith, provides a veteran presence and had 128 tackles, eight pass deflections, one sack, one interception, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery last season. Za’Darius Smith, a fourth round pick out of Kentucky, has been solid and will push for playing time.

“We definitely have some high expectations of making it back to the playoffs, but not just that,” Suggs said. “We’ve got some other things in mind, but I won’t share it with you, because that definitely makes us some targets. We always want to keep ascending. You always want to do better than you did in your previous year, and hopefully, we can get some home playoff games this year.”

–BIGGEST QUESTION: The Ravens wanted to give quarterback Joe Flacco more weapons this season. However, it is still not clear whether they have accomplished that goal.

First round draft pick Breshad Perriman is supposed to be the team’s primary downfield threat. However, he was injured the first day of training camp and has not played since. Steve Smith is a proven commodity, but he appeared to wear down near the end of last season. At age 36, there are fears that could happen again. Kamar Aiken appears to have earned the starting spot opposite Smith. He appeared in 16 games last season and had 24 receptions for 267 yards with three touchdowns. Marlon Brown also had a solid camp, but he has never been a featured receiver. Brown came to Baltimore as an undrafted free agent in 2013 and caught seven touchdowns that season — tying a franchise record for rookies. Darren Waller, a rookie out of Georgia Tech, has impressed coaches with his ability to make plays, but he is unproven. Second-year player Jeremy Butler also is battling for playing time. Michael Campanaro has struggled to stay healthy. Outside of Smith, none of these receivers will initially strike fear into opposing cornerbacks.

THE PLAYERS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter — Joe Flacco. Backup — Matt Schaub.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter — Justin Forsett. Backups — Lorenzo Taliaferro, Javorius “Buck” Allen, FB Kyle Juszczyk.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Crockett Gillmore. Backups — Maxx Williams, Nick Boyle.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — Steve Smith Jr., Kamar Aiken. Backups — Marlon Brown, Michael Campanaro, Breshad Perriman, Darren Waller.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LT Eugene Monroe, LG Kelechi Osemele, C Jeremy Zuttah, RG Marshal Yanda, RT Rick Wagner. Backups — James Hurst, Jah Reid, John Urschel, Ryan Jensen.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — DLE Chris Canty, DT Timmy Jernigan, NT Brandon Williams. Backups — DeAngelo Tyson, Lawrence Guy, Carl Davis, Christo Bilukidi.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — WLB Daryl Smith, MLB C.J. Mosley, SLB Terrell Suggs, SLB Courtney Upshaw. Backups — Zachary Orr, Albert McClellan, Elvis Dumervil, Za’Darius Smith.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Lardarius Webb, RCB Jimmy Smith, FS Kendrick Lewis, SS Will Hill. Backups — Kyle Arrington, Rashaan Melvin, Asa Jackson, Quinton Pointer, Terrence Brooks, Anthony Levine.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Justin Tucker, P Sam Koch, LS Morgan Cox, KOR Asa Jackson, PR Michael Campanaro.

2015 SCHEDULE

Strength of schedule:

Baltimore: Overall .539; Division; .594; Non-Division .506.

All times Eastern

Sept. 13, at Denver, 4:25

Sept. 20, at Oakland, 4:05

Sept. 27, CINCINNATI, 1:00

Oct. 1, at Pittsburgh (Thu.), 8:25

Oct. 11, CLEVELAND, 1:00

Oct. 18, at San Francisco, 4:25

Oct. 26, at Arizona (Mon.), 8:30

Nov. 1, SAN DIEGO, 1:00

Nov. 8, OPEN DATE,

Nov. 15, JACKSONVILLE, 1:00

Nov. 22, ST. LOUIS, 1:00

Nov. 30, at Cleveland (Mon.), 8:30

Dec. 6, at Miami, 1:00

Dec. 13, SEATTLE, 8:30

Dec. 20, KANSAS CITY, 1:00

Dec. 27, PITTSBURGH, 8:30

Jan. 3, at Cincinnati, 1:00

CINCINNATI BENGALS

2014 RECORD: 10-6-1

DIVISIONAL RECORD: 3-3

COACH: Marvin Lewis

13th season as Bengals

13th season as NFL head coach

100-96-2 overall; 0-6 postseason

TEAM STRENGTH: The Bengals are loaded with options on the defensive line, so depth there isn’t a question. The return of Michael Johnson and Pat Sims gave the unit a nice jolt this offseason, and Geno Atkins, who spent last year playing his way back from major knee surgery, seems to have returned to form. Some solid players probably will be crowded out of this group.

BIGGEST QUESTION: Fans want to know if quarterback Andy Dalton can carry this team to its first playoff victory since 1990, but he’s at least done enough to get the Bengals there the last four years. The fact that he was booed during a celebrity softball game — for charity — doesn’t exude a lot of confidence in him, but the bigger question in the immediate future is how strong the Bengals will be in their coverage on kick returns. One key player lost in that area was Taylor Mays, who now is with Oakland.

THE PLAYERS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter — Andy Dalton. Backups — AJ McCarron, Keith Wenning.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter — Jeremy Hill. Backups — Giovani Bernard, Cedric Peerman, Rex Burkhead, James Wilder Jr., Terrell Watson.

TIGHT ENDS: Starters — Tyler Eifert, Ryan Hewitt. Backups — C.J. Uzomah, Tyler Kroft, Matt Lengel.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — A.J. Green, Mohamed Sanu. Backups — Brandon Tate, Marvin Jones, Greg Little, Mario Alford, Michael Bennett, Jake Kumerow, Desmond Lawrence.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LT Andrew Whitworth, LG Clint Boling, C Russell Bodine, RG Kevin Keitler, RT Andre Smith. Backups — LT Jake Fisher, LG Trey Hopkins, C T.J. Johnson, RG Dan France, RT Eric Winston. Others: T Cedric Ogbuehi (backup, NFI).

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LDE Carlos Dunlap, NT Domata Peko, DT Geno Atkins, RDE Michael Johnson. Backups — LDE Margus Hunt, NT Pat Sims, DT Brandon Thompson, DT Devon Still, DT Marcus Hardison, DT DeShawn Williams, RDE Wallace Gilberry, RDE Will Clarke.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — SLB A.J. Hawk, MLB Rey Maualuga, WLB Vontaze Burfict. Backups — SLB Emmanuel Lamur, SLB Jayson DiManche, SLB Chris Carter, MLB Marquis Flowers, MLB Trevor Roach, WLB Vincent Ray, WLB P.J. Dawson. Others: WLB Sean Porter (backup, PUP).

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Dre Kirkpatrick, RCB Adam Jones, SS George Iloka, FS Reggie Nelson. Backups — LCB Darqueze Dennard, LCB Brandon Ghee, LCB Josh Shaw, RCB Leon Hall, RCB Chris Lewis-Harris, RCB Troy Hill, SS Shiloh Keo, SS Derron Smith, SS Floyd Raven, FS Shawn Williams.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Mike Nugent, K Tom Obarski, P Kevin Huber, LS Clark Harris, KOR Brandon Tate, KOR Adam Jones, KOR Mario Alford, PR Adam Jones, PR Brandon Tate, PR Giovani Barnard, PR Mario Alford.

2015 SCHEDULE

Strength of schedule

Overall .563; Division, .583l Non-Division .550.

All times Eastern

Sept. 13, at Oakland, 4:25

Sept. 20, SAN DIEGO, 1:00

Sept. 27, at Baltimore, 1:00

Oct. 4, KANSAS CITY, 1:00

Oct. 11, SEATTLE, 1:00

Oct. 18, at Buffalo, 1:00

Oct. 25, OPEN DATE,

Nov. 1, at Pittsburgh, 1:00

Nov. 5, CLEVELAND (Thu.), 8:25

Nov. 16, HOUSTON (Mon.), 8:30

Nov. 22, at Arizona, 4:05

Nov. 29, ST. LOUIS, 1:00

Dec. 6, at Cleveland, 1:00

Dec. 13, PITTSBURGH, 1:00

Dec. 20, at San Francisco, 8:30

Dec. 28, at Denver (Mon.), 8:30

Jan. 3, BALTIMORE, 1:00

CLEVELAND BROWNS

2014 RECORD: 7-9

DIVISIONAL RECORD: 2-4

COACH: Mike Pettine

2nd season as Browns

2nd season at NFL head coach

7-9 overall

–TEAM STRENGTH: The offensive line is the best unit on either side of the ball, as it should be considering the investment made there. Left tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack were first-round draft picks. Left guard Joel Bitonio and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz were high second-round picks. The Browns last season learned a valuable lesson about depth on the offensive line when Mack missed the last 11 games because of a broken leg. Even if rookie Cameron Erving, another first-round pick, does not start at right guard, as it appears he won’t, he is valuable because he can play left tackle, right guard or center.

–BIGGEST QUESTION: Will quarterback Josh McCown play as well in the regular season as he has for most of the preseason and training camp? It would be one of the greatest stories of the season if a quarterback with a 17-32 lifetime record as a starter turns out to be a late bloomer at age 36. He has had one winning season in his career, and that was 3-2 with the Bears in 2013.

THE PLAYERS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter — Josh McCown. Backups — Johnny Manziel, Thad Lewis.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters — Isaiah Crowell, FB Malcolm Johnson. Backups — Terrance West, Duke Johnson, Shaun Draughn.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Gary Barnidge. Backups — Jim Dray, E.J. Bibbs.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — Andrew Hawkins, Brian Hartline. Backups — Taylor Gabriel, Dwayne Bowe, Travis Benjamin, Terrelle Pryor, Marlon Moore.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LT Joe Thomas, LG Joel Bitonio, C Alex Mack, RG John Greco, RT Mitchell Schwartz. Backups — G/C Cameron Erving, T Andrew McDonald.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LDE Desmond Bryant, NT Danny Shelton, RDE Randy Starks. Backups — DE/NT John Hughes, NT Jamie Meder, DE Xavier Cooper, DE Armonty Bryant.

LINEBACKERS: WLB Scott Solomon, MLB Karlos Dansby, ILB Craig Robertson, SLB Paul Kruger. Backups — OLB Barkevious Mingo, OLB Nate Orchard, ILB Christian Kirksey, ILB Tank Carder.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Joe Haden, RCB Tramon Williams, FS Tashaun Gipson, SS Donte Whitner. Backups — CB K’Waun Williams, CB Pierre Desir, CB Justin Gilbert, S Johnson Bademosi, S Ibraheim Campbell, CB Charles Gaines.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Travis Coons, P Andy Lee, LS Charley Hughlett, KOR Duke Johnson, PR Travis Benjamin.

2015 SCHEDULE

Strength of schedule:

Overall .543; Division .656; Non-Division .475

All times EASTERN

Sept. 13, at N.Y. Jets, 1:00

Sept. 20, TENNESSEE, 1:00

Sept. 27, OAKLAND, 1:00

Oct. 4, at San Diego, 4:05

Oct. 11, at Baltimore, 1:00

Oct. 18, DENVER, 1:00

Oct. 25, at St. Louis, 1:00

Nov. 1, ARIZONA, 1:00

Nov. 5, at Cincinnati (Thu.), 8:25

Nov. 15, at Pittsburgh, 1:00

Nov. 22, OPEN DATE

Nov. 30, BALTIMORE (Mon.), 8:30

Dec. 6, CINCINNATI, 1:00

Dec. 13, SAN FRANCISCO, 1:00

Dec. 20, at Seattle, 4:05

Dec. 27, at Kansas City, 1:00

Jan. 3, PITTSBURGH, 1:00

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

2014 RECORD: 11-6

DIVISIONAL RECORD: 4-2

COACH: Mike Tomlin

9th season as Steelers

9th season as NFL head coach

87-50 overall; 5-4 postseason

–TEAM STRENGTH: Receiver. Despite the impending four-game suspension to Martavis Bryant, the Steelers believe their three receivers can match up with anyone, while adding a fourth threat with tight end Heath Miller. Antonio Brown is an All-Pro who led the league in receiving. Bryant is a deadly deep threat, as he proved some more in the preseason, especially in the fourth game when he caught three passes for 138 yards and a touchdown. Marcus Wheaton broke out last year and should have an even better season.

–BIGGEST QUESTION: Cornerback. The Steelers are afraid they do not have enough on the corner, even after they acquired veteran Brandon Boykin from the Eagles in a trade this summer. Starter William Gay should be playing in the slot. Cortez Allen, who received a five-year, $26-million contract from the Steelers a year ago, has been a failure and appears he will continue to be. Second-round pick Senquez Golson came to camp with a shoulder injury that prompted surgery and will keep him out all season.

THE PLAYERS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter — Ben Roethlisberger. Backups — Mike Vick, Landry Jones.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters — DeAngelo Williams, FB Will Johnson. Backups — Dri Archer, Josh Harris. Others: Le’Veon Bell (starter, suspended 2 games)

TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Heath Miller. Backups — Matt Spaeth, Jesse James.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton. Backups — Sammie Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Tyler Murphy. Others: Martavis Bryant (backup, suspended 4 games).

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LT Kelvin Beachum, LG Ramon Foster, C Cody Wallace, RG David DeCastro, RT Marcus Gilbert. Backups — G/C Chris Hubbard, T Alejandro Villanueva, G/C Doug Legursky, C Maurkice Pouncey (starter, probable short-term IR), T Mike Adams (backup, PUP).

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — RE Cam Heyward, LE Stephon Tuitt, NT Steve McLendon. Backups — NT Daniel McCullers, DE/NT Cam Thomas, DE L.T. Walton.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — LOLB Arthur Moats, ILB Ryan Shazier, ILB Lawrence Timmons, ROLB Jarvis Jones. Backups — OLB James Harrison, OLB Bud Dupree, ILB Sean Spence, ILB Vince Williams, OLB ILB Terence Garvin, OLB Anthony Chickillo.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Cortez Allen, RCB William Gay, FS Mike Mitchell, SS Shamarko Thomas. Backups — CB Brandon Boykin, CB Antwon Blake, S Will Allen, S Ross Ventrone, CB Doran Grant, S Robert Golden, CB Kevin Fogg.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Josh Scobee, P Jordan Berry, LS Greg Warren, KOR Dri Archer, PR Antonio Brown.

2015 SCHEDULE

Strength of schedule:

Overall .578; Division .573; Non-Division .581

All times Eastern

Sept. 10, at New England (Thu.), 8:30

Sept. 20, SAN FRANCISCO, 1:00

Sept. 27, at St. Louis, 1:00

Oct. 1, BALTIMORE (Thu.), 8:25

Oct. 12, at San Diego (Mon.), 8:30

Oct. 18, ARIZONA, 1:00

Oct. 25, at Kansas City, 1:00

Nov. 1, CINCINNATI, 1:00

Nov. 8, OAKLAND, 1:00

Nov. 15, CLEVELAND, 1:00

Nov. 22, OPEN DATE,

Nov. 29, at Seattle, 4:25

Dec. 6, INDIANAPOLIS, 8:30

Dec. 13, at Cincinnati, 1:00

Dec. 20, DENVER, 4:25

Dec. 27, at Baltimore, 8:30

Jan. 3, at Cleveland, 1:00

–Correspondents covering each team for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this report. Next week The Sports Xchange will analyze every unit on every team and project order of finish in each division


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