Four Analysts, Four Questions – AFC North

| September 1, 2011

Continuing with our division-by-division dissection, our team shows their soothsaying skills with a series of sure things and strong statements.
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Question their sanity, but heed their answers – here we go, Four Questions about the North:
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Who’s your 2011 breakout player for the AFC North?
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Khaled: I’m being very liberal with the term ‘Breakout Player’ and looking at guy I think is going to take a huge leap forward in Year 2. Joe Haden. No cornerback impressed me more at times than Haden, who makes plays, has the kind of athleticism to recover from his mistakes, and is also pretty feisty in the run game. I apologize if I’ve put a curse on him, but I really see Haden as a guy who could potentially challenge Revis as the league’s top cornerback.

Ben: This is entirely dependent upon Bryant McKinnie keeping his weight and health in check but if Michael Oher plays the entire season at right tackle we could see a re-emergence of the fine offensive lineman we saw his rookie season. Just as some people are extremely right and left handed, some offensive linemen are extremely right or left footed in terms of which side of the line they can play. On the evidence we have, Oher is one of those guys and with him back at right tackle, the Ravens line will look that little bit more stable. While we’re on the subject of right tackles, Ben Roethlisberger should be ecstatic to see the return of Willie Colon to the Steelers offensive line.

Neil: Now that I’ve made a rod for my own back I’ll stick with giving you one from each team. Baltimore – right guard Marshal Yanda should hardly be news to the PFF faithful (I picked him last year too) but if all goes to plan he should be in the Pro Bowl this year (well at least our version). In Cincinnati defensive tackle Geno Atkins is now starting and that should allow him more time to show just what a good player he is, particularly when it comes to rushing the passer. Finally, I’m going obvious in both Cleveland and Pittsburgh; Joe Haden is simply the best rookie corner we’ve seen and the Steelers seem to have started another production line to add to their linebacker version with the likely ascension of Antonio Brown to add to Hines Ward and Mike Wallace at Wide Receiver.

Rick: Maybe a bit of a rooting choice here, but I think Colt McCoy sees some 2011 success as the starter in Cleveland. If the plan is tailored to suit and the run game remains the focus for opposing D’s, McCoy could quietly climb the league’s QB ladder and settle in as a legit leader for this offense.
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The over/under lines for season win totals in the division are: Baltimore 10.5;  Cincinnati 5.5; Cleveland 6.5;  Pittsburgh 10.5. On which would you put your theoretical $100?
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Khaled: I played it safe yesterday and I’ll play it safe again in taking the under on Cincinnati. Why? Because the 2011 Bengals resemble the 2010 Panthers. Andy Dalton may not be as bad as Jimmy Clausen (or he could be worse) but I see four wins in this teams future.

Ben: It’s tough to project a team to be so completely woeful that you’ll take them as an under at 5.5 but that’s what I’m going to do with the Bengals. It may only be preseason but on the back of a dreadful 2010 season it’s tough to see the Bengals not going into a tail spin. This season could get really ugly, really fast for them.

Neil: I was torn. Under on Cincy at 5.5, over on the Browns at 6.5? No, I’m going for over on the Steelers at 10.5 – if they sort out that O-Line I could make a fortune.

Rick: Bengals and the under is too easy, I’m going Baltimore and the over – and they’ll get those 11 wins without beating Pittsburgh in either matchup.
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What do you see as the positional strength of the division?
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Khaled: I’m ignoring the positional strength bit and purely focusing on what they all have in terms of pass rushers. The Steelers are going to get at you with Woodley and Harrison, the Ravens have Suggs, while the Bengals can look at a couple of sophomore players like Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap and see them getting the job done. The only question mark are the Browns, but don’t be surprised if Marcus Benard puts up good numbers from their sub package defenses.

Ben: It’s hard to look past the talent that this division has in the offensive backfield. Ray Rice struggled last season in the running game but still showed his agility and ability in space in the passing game. Rashard Mendenhall has looked the real deal ever since he deposed Willie Parker in Pittsburgh. Peyton Hillis came in to Cleveland last season and showed that the forgotten man of the great Arkansas backfield was at least a match for his more heralded team mates (Felix Jones and Darren McFadden). Combine that all with Cedric Benson, who is a tremendous back hindered by the offense and coaching around him (and jail time). There are veins of talent at corner and inside linebacker but the offensive backfield is the only one that runs through the entire division.

Neil: Running backs are the strength here although I am banking on a couple of guys getting back to their 2009 form. That would be Ray Rice in Baltimore, who while brilliant as a receiver coming out of the backfield last year didn’t look as dangerous taking the handoff, and Cedric Benson who struggled due to no one in Bengal Land having a clue how to maximize the huge talent on their line. In addition there is Rashard Mendenhall in Pittsburgh looking like he’ll have a terrific 2011 and Madden cover guy, Peyton Hillis, who is about to show us all last year was no one-off fluke.

Rick: Bouncing from side to side could be seen as cheating, but since I’ve got the last shot at this one, I’m going to point out the offensive tackles. A division that holds Joe Thomas and Andrew Whitworth on the left and Willie Colon and Michael Oher on the right sure has enough story lines to hold my interest. While Thomas and Whitworth were two of the league’s best on the blindside in 2010, a short run back to 2009 shows what Colon and Oher can do as both return to the right. With Bryant McKinnie added to the mix and Marshall Yanda around if needed, there’s some tackle talent to talk about in the North.
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Who is going to make the playoffs and do they have a shot to win it all?
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Khaled: I’m not betting against the Steelers. They’re too powerful in too many areas, and have proven (when Big Ben is fit and healthy) they’re just that little bit stronger than the Ravens. Baltimore need more consistency, especially in the bigger games against the top teams, otherwise they’ll be a playoff team playing on wild card weekend once again.

Ben: It’s boring I know but how do you see past Pittsburgh? Cleveland could make strides, Baltimore have been competitive every year under John Harbaugh but the consistency of the Steelers is on a whole different level. Byron Leftwich breaking his arm raises some questions about what happens if Roethlisberger goes down, but if the worst thing to worry about (problematic offensive line aside) is your backup QB situation, you’re doing rather well.

Neil: Pittsburgh … and they will play New England in the AFC Championship game. I’m fed up with Joe Flacco over-promising and under-delivering. In addition, the Baltimore defense got worse with the losses of Dawan Landry and Josh Wilson while the Steelers only got stronger with the return of LE Aaron Smith. And, in case anyone was wondering where Sam Monson was, we had to send him away this year – he’s in Purgatory for picking the Bengals in this question last year.

Rick: In protest of Sam’s banishment, I’m going to go with Cincinnati here. They’ve got the pieces in place to do some damage … argh, sorry, Sam, I can’t even write it in jest. Pittsburgh wins the division. Baltimore also advances. Neither plays for the trophy.

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Follow the guys on Twitter: @PFF_Khaled, @PFF_Neil, @PFF_Rick … and the main feed: @ProFootbalFocus
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