NFL 2012: AFC North preseason capsules
BALTIMORE RAVENS (13-5)
OPEN CAMP: July 25.
LAST YEAR: Won AFC North with a 12-4 record to earn first-round bye for first time since 2006. After defeating Houston at home, lost at New England 23-20 in AFC title game when Lee Evans couldn't hold on to a potential TD pass during final drive before Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: DB Corey Graham, G Bobbie Williams, WR Jacoby Jones, S Sean Considine, DT Ryan McBean, QB Curtis Painter.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: LB Jarret Johnson, G Ben Grubbs, DE Cory Redding, DB Tom Zbikowski, LB Terrell Suggs (torn Achilles).
CAMP NEEDS: Ravens hope Williams will be suitable replacement for Grubbs, and it's imperative he gets in mix immediately. Also concern about LT Bryant McKinnie, who was withheld from OTAs "for conditioning reasons." Just as important, team needs to fill void left by departure of Suggs and Johnson. Top draft pick Courtney Upshaw likely choice to replace Johnson.
EXPECTATIONS: Baltimore has reached the playoffs in each of the last four seasons, but doing so again will be difficult. Team lost several key players, and injury to Suggs, the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, will severely hurt pass rush. Ravens also have new defensive co-ordinator in Dean Pees, and LB Ray Lewis and S Ed Reed aren't getting any younger. Good news is RB Ray Rice signed new 5-year deal, shed the franchise tag and will be in camp at outset.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS (12-5)
OPEN CAMP: July 25.
LAST YEAR: Cruised through regular season after shaky start, only last-second loss to Ravens prevented Steelers from winning another AFC North title. That loss forced them to start playoffs on road, where they were stunned in OT by Tim Tebow and Broncos. Defence again excelled, though those numbers were skewed by lacklustre schedule. Pittsburgh finished last in NFL in takeaways (15) and secondary looked vulnerable in key situations, no more so than 80-yard TD pass from Tebow to Demaryius Thomas on first play of overtime in playoffs. QB Ben Roethlisberger was solid but struggled to stay healthy behind sometimes patchwork offensive line; running game failed to produce consistently in red zone.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: TE Leonard Pope, G David DeCastro, T Mike Adams.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: WR Hines Ward, DE Aaron Smith, LB James Farrior, NT Chris Hoke, DB William Gay.
CAMP NEEDS: Biggest addition during off-season wasn't player but offensive co-ordinator Todd Haley, who replaces ousted Bruce Arians. Roethlisberger didn't hide his displeasure over move though Haley's promise to put more focus on running game surely resonated with front office that thought Steelers had moved too far away from trademark smashmouth style. RB Rashard Mendenhall, however, out indefinitely with knee injury, leaving Isaac Redman as first option.
EXPECTATIONS: Coach Mike Tomlin has turned "the standard is the standard" into team motto, and despite significant loss of leadership following release/retirement of Ward, Farrior and Smith the Steelers again expect to be playing in February. Troy Polamalu, James Harrison and Roethlisberger will continue to provide sense of order, and WR Antonio Brown's emergence as Roethlisberger's favourite target late in season should soften any blow from possible extended absence of Pro Bowler Mike Wallace, who continues to grouse about his contract situation.
CINCINNATI BENGALS (9-8)
OPEN CAMP: July 26.
LAST YEAR: Unexpectedly made playoffs as wild card despite rookies at QB (Andy Dalton) and WR (A.J. Green). Part of it was favourable schedule. The nine wins included only one against team that finished with winning record. They went 0-8 against teams that reached playoffs. Trying to make post-season in consecutive years for only second time in club history — they also did it in 1981-82 under coach Forrest Gregg.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, CB Dre Kirkpatrick, WR Mohamed Sanu, G Kevin Zeitler, CB Jason Allen, G Jacob Bell, G Travelle Wharton, DE Derrick Harvey, DE Jamaal Anderson.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: RB Cedric Benson, G Bobbie Williams, S Chris Crocker, DE Frostee Rucker, DE Jonathan Fanene, G Nate Livings, WR Jerome Simpson, WR Andre Caldwell.
CAMP NEEDS: Bengals holding camp at their Paul Brown Stadium facility for first time, breaking with tradition of practicing at a small college. With Simpson and Caldwell gone, Bengals need someone — possibly Sanu — to emerge as complementary receiver to Green. Kirkpatrick, the 17th overall pick, will get chance to start across from CB Leon Hall. Zeitler will have chance to move into starting guard spot.
EXPECTATIONS: Bengals haven't won playoff game since 1990. They've had only three winning records since, going 0-3 in playoffs. Quick emergence of Dalton and Green sparked hope for futile franchise, but Bengals still have long way to go before they can consider themselves consistent contender. Tougher schedule will provide measure of whether last season was one-year aberration. There's also the matter of coach Marvin Lewis' contract — it runs out at end of this season, providing uncertainty about team's long-term direction.
CLEVELAND BROWNS (4-12)
OPEN CAMP: July 26.
LAST YEAR: Anemic offence and coach Pat Shurmur's first-year issues, compounded by lockout, resulted in team's fourth straight double-digit loss season. Scored just 213 points, and offence ranked at or near the bottom in every significant statistical category. Without any quality weapons to throw to, QB Colt McCoy had little choice but to run for cover and he paid price by suffering concussion that cost him final three games.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: RB Trent Richardson, QB Brandon Weeden, DE Frotee Rucker, DE Juqua Parker, WR Travis Benjamin, RT Mitchell Schwartz, LB James-Michael Johnson, WR Josh Gordon.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: RB Peyton Hillis, S Mike Adams, DE Jayme Mitchell, G Eric Steinbach, WR Brian Robiskie, LS Ryan Pontbriand, RT Tony Pashos.
CAMP NEEDS: Weeden, soon-to-be 29-year-old rookie, must show he's ready to take starting job and run with it. Weeden displayed tools to be franchise QB during spring practice and needs to continue to progress. With DT Phil Taylor expected to miss half the season with chest injury, Browns need run stuffer up front alongside underrated Ahtyba Rubin. Rookies John Hughes and Billy Winn and journeyman Scott Paxson figure to be in mix to hold Taylor's spot.
EXPECTATIONS: Richardson could be key to Browns' turnaround. The No. 3 overall draft pick has already impressed with his work ethic and all-business attitude. He's got great hands and new offensive co-ordinator Brad Childress must figure out how to get ball to former Alabama back in open space. Linebacker Scott Fujita's three-game suspension for involvement in Saints bounty program opens door for Johnson to get immediate playing time. Team putting pressure on WR Mohamed Massaquoi to make big jump after three disappointing seasons.