David Syvertsen takes a look at the team needs of the reigning Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers, along with the rest of the AFC North.Pittsburgh Steelers
Big Ben’s Blind Side Protector
The Steelers want to have a very specific genre of blockers lining up with their hands in the dirt every play. Big, physical, and downright nasty. Their offense is built on a straight ahead running game that opens up the downfield passing attack. With that in mind, the Steelers have always compensated pass protection ability for maulers in the trenches. It is a formula that has reaped enormous rewards as the Steelers have won two of the past four Super Bowls. However if they intend on getting the most out of Ben Roethlisberger long term, they need to surround him with better pass protectors, most notably at left tackle. He has had such a wide assortment of injuries from head to toe, literally, and at the age of 27, his body may be physically closer to that of a 30 year old. While he has the thick frame to handle the physical brutality of NFL pass rushers, he isn’t Superman. Max Starks is a serviceable left tackle but within the next year or two, the Steelers need to find pass blocker that can stick with the speed rushers off the edge, even if it means a slight compensation in the run blocking sector of the position.
Depth at Inside Linebacker
The loss of Larry Foote to Detroit will not hurt the Steelers because the league is about to find out just how good Lawrence Timmons is. He has twice the athletic ability that Foote did and now that he has had two years to apply his top notch raw ability to the complex scheme that Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau have put in place, he is going to become one of the top players on the best defense in the NFL. However, next to him his 34 year old James Farrior who has not missed a game since 2005. Despite his Pro-Bowl caliber level of play and outstanding durability, the end is likely closer than the Steelers want to admit. Behind Timmons and Farrior, there isn’t much to speak of and part of the reason this defense is so tough has been the versatility and depth of the linebackers. The linebacker unit is such a vital component to their scheme and without a reliable group, that defense as a whole becomes a lot more human.
Now that the Ravens have solved their issue at quarterback and have lined up the protection in front of him, General Manager needs to find the pass catcher that is going to push Flacco to the next level. While Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton played at a respectable level in 2008 and Demetrius Williams has shown deep threat potential, that offense still lacks a true threat that demands a duble team. Rumors have been swirling around names like Brandon Marshall and Anquan Boldin in the trade market, but Newsome is too good of a draft master to pay the price for those established stars. The upcoming wide receiver draft classes are going to be stacked with talent and it will be imperative that they find Flacco his career number one target.
It is hard to find a true need on the Baltimore defense because it seems as if they have dominant defenders grow like weeds year in and year out. We will see just how much Rex Ryan had to do with that now that he has left for the head coaching job in New York. Bart Scott followed Ryan to New York with little resistance from the Ravens, as the combination of Tavares Gooden and Antwan Barnes seems capable of stepping into place next to the legendary Ray Lewis. The Ravens do not shy away from giving opportunity to an unproven talent but without Ryan in the picture, those transitions may be tougher to deal with. Ray Lewis had a strong 2008 campaign that almost landed the Ravens in the Super Bowl but instead of him elevating the level of play of those around him, he is the one the one reaping rewards from his teammates. His lateral range is a thing of the past and he is no longer able to toss blockers away. That means there needs to be a stronger unit around him, particularly inside on the first two levels. With the way Haloti Ngata is bounced around the defense, there needs to be a steady presence in front of him that can make plays when unaccounted for or eat up double teams consistently. And next to him, there needs to be a linebacker that can fly around and take advantage of being overlooked by blockers very similar to the way Bart Scott did over the past two seasons. It will be interesting to see how leverage king Kelly Gregg bounces back from his knee injury, but one has to assume he will be spelled quite often. Is there a reliable presence behind him?
Prior to Carson Palmer’s season ending elbow injury that cut his year to just five games in 2008, he was being bloodied up by opposing pass rushers week in and week out. Palmer and his replacement were sacked a total of 51 times, good for third most in the NFL. The Bengals do not stand a chance without Palmer and letting him get knocked around like a pinball week in and week out al but ensures the potential of his Cincinnati career being one of disappointment and underachievement. The weapons are set in place around him but the big boys up front need to take that step forward and provide the insurance that did not exist last year. Andre Smith is a gamble, and Andrew Whitworth is an even bigger one. If those slow footed maulers cannot seal the edge, Palmer will spend more time on the inactive list and pave the way for the consistent mediocre football in Cincinnati.
Only one team had less sacks than the Bengals in 2008. One would think that priority number one when it came to personnel tweaking would center around the idea of increasing the quality of the pass rush considering the amount of attention that sector of defensive football has gotten over the past few years. Unless the Bengals front office us under the impression that Tank Johnson is going to bring this defensive line to another level, they failed at improving the most glaring issue on this defense. There is some young, intriguing talent in the back seven with Keith Rivers, Marvin White, Leon Hall, and Jonathon Joseph. But one thing that will elevate the play of those players is a pass rush. High motor guys like Robert Geathers and Domata Peko can only do so much. They need a feared pass rusher in there for multiple reasons.
Every Down Running Back
The soon to be 30 year old Jamal Lewis is capable of being a key cog within the Browns offense for at least the next couple of seasons. But him being the key component of the rushing attack will make it very difficult for the unit as a whole to consistently move the ball and score points. Despite being frequently nicked up with various injuries, Lewis has proven to be a durable back as he has played in at least 15 games every season of his nine year career except for his 2004 campaign. He had a strong 2007 season, averaging 4.4 yards per carry but in 2008, he took a big step back and averaged just over 3.5 yards per touch. Behind him is a pair of young backs that complement each other well, but do not spell confidence when searching for an every down back. Rookie James Davis can play the physical role while Jerome Harrison is more of a scat back. With the quarterback situation is what it is right now in Cleveland and Eric Mangini’s dependence on the ground game, a dependable presence will be needed in the backfield.
True 3-4 Linebackers
For the amount of talent the Browns had up front, the fact that they were one of the worst ten defenses against the run in 2008 makes you look very hard at the linebackers. Even if one wants to point the finger at a lack of depth behind the likes of Shaun Rogers and Corey Williams, Eric Mangini brought over two very good 3-4 linemen in Kenyon Coleman and CJ Mosley to go along with Robaire and Shaun Smith. Those bodies will keep blockers off the linebackers for the most part but they still need to play at a much more physical level than they did last year. Eric Barton will help D’Qwell Jackson and Leon Williams, but even he has difficulty when moving laterally. Jackson is the only linebacker on this squad that spells long term confidence. On the outside, the Browns are still waiting for Kamerion Wimbley to take his place among the top pass rushers in the division but he remains to be easily beaten by single team blocks. The linebackers are vital within the Mangini 3-4 scheme and all four of their starters could be replaced at this time next year outside of Jackson.