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Friday, July 9, 2010
AFC North offensive coordinators in focus

By James Walker
ESPN.com

Cam Cameron/Bruce Arians
Offensive coordinators Cam Cameron and Bruce Arians run offenses facing very different challenges heading into the 2010 season.
Offensive coordinators Bruce Arians, Cam Cameron, Bob Bratkowski and Brian Daboll have something in common: They're lightning rods for fans throughout the AFC North.

They are among the most talked about assistants in the division, and in many ways it's a very tough spot to be in. When things go right, the players executed. But when things go wrong, it's the offensive coordinators who get blamed for poor play calling. All four face different challenges in 2010.

Here's a look at the coordinators for each team:

Offensive coordinator: Bruce Arians

Team: Pittsburgh Steelers

Offensive ranking in '09: No. 7

Biggest challenge: The start of the season will be trying for the Steelers as star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger serves his conditional six-game suspension. With good behavior Roethlisberger could return after four games, which is the expected outcome. But Pittsburgh has had the luxury of Roethlisberger making magic out of broken plays and will need to be more structured and conventional to win during the first month of the season. Expect Arians to earn his money trying to scheme without his best offensive player.

Biggest strength: Even with the trade of Santonio Holmes, the Steelers still have a good group of veteran skill players. Hines Ward is coming off another 1,000-yard season, Heath Miller is the top tight end in the division, and tailback Rashard Mendenhall is a budding talent. Also look out for second-year receiver Mike Wallace. The NFL game didn't seem too big for him as a rookie, and Wallace seems primed to break out in his first year as a starter.

Biggest weakness: For Pittsburgh, it's scoring touchdowns. Despite a 4,000-yard quarterback, a 1,000-yard rusher and two 1,000-yard receivers, the Steelers averaged 23 points per game last season. That's not a bad number, but you would expect more points with the amount of yards Arians' unit produced last year. The offensive line struggled mightily in the red zone, and Willie Colon's season-ending Achilles injury doesn't help. Mendenhall also needs to get better at getting the tough yards, especially with Roethlisberger not in the fold early.

Forecast: I don't have particularly high hopes for Pittsburgh's offense with Byron Leftwich or Dennis Dixon under center. Teams will stack the box against Mendenhall until Pittsburgh proves it can pass. The offensive line also has questions. But once Roethlisberger comes back, this unit is talented enough to get hot in the second half of the season. But will it be too late?

Bob Bratkowski
Bob Bratkowski will have a number of new weapons to work with in the passing game this season.
Offensive coordinator: Bob Bratkowski

Team: Cincinnati Bengals

Offensive ranking in '09: No. 24

Biggest challenge: The biggest hurdle facing Bratkowski and the Bengals' offense is creating balance. It was very one-dimensional last year, particularly late in the season. Outside of Pro Bowl receiver Chad Ochocinco, there were no legitimate threats in the passing game. As a result, Cincinnati overhauled its offense via the draft and free agency by adding receivers Antonio Bryant, Jordan Shipley and tight end Jermaine Gresham.

Biggest strength: Despite the flashy additions in the passing game, the running game remains the most proven commodity for Cincinnati. Cedric Benson is coming off a career year and his first 1,000-yard season, and Bernard Scott and Brian Leonard are decent backup options. The Bengals' offensive line also is very good at controlling and moving the line of scrimmage. But the unit wasn't as solid in pass protection for quarterback Carson Palmer.

Biggest weakness: Right now the biggest question for Cincinnati's offense is at fullback. The Bengals have finally moved forward without Jeremi Johnson, who was constantly battling weight problems. Now the unproven Fui Vakapuna looks like the early favorite to win the job. Look for Cincinnati to run a lot of multiple-receiver and tight end sets this year. So the fullback position may not be as important.

Forecast: The Bengals will rely on a lot of new parts, including Bryant, Gresham and Shipley. But if a majority of these options pan out, Cincinnati could be a dangerous unit. Benson's off-field issues may be something to watch in case a suspension is looming. But other than that, expect Bratkowski and the Bengals to be much better than last year's No. 24 ranking.

Offensive coordinator: Cam Cameron

Team: Baltimore Ravens

Offensive ranking in '09: No. 13

Biggest challenge: Managing egos will be a unique challenge for Cameron. With the exception of quarterback Joe Flacco, every starting skill player for Baltimore has been to the Pro Bowl. That's a lot of talent and a lot of players who want the ball. Anquan Boldin, Ray Rice, Derrick Mason, Le'Ron McClain, Todd Heap and Willis McGahee all feel they can help the team win. But there will be weeks when Cameron must tell Boldin he's a decoy and games when Rice will get only 10 carries. How will they react? Winning solves a lot of problems. But if this team experiences a significant losing streak, look out.

Biggest strength: Versatility is something that Baltimore's offense has lacked in the past. But that's no longer the case. The Ravens should be able to win games on the ground and through the air this year, which was the goal this offseason for general manager Ozzie Newsome. Boldin's acquisition was huge for the passing game, and Rice still hasn't reached his ceiling as an NFL running back. Cameron believes Baltimore has the potential to be a top-five scoring offense, and on paper there's no reason to doubt that.

Biggest weakness: There aren't many weaknesses on this unit. But if I had to nitpick, Baltimore's depth on the offensive line isn't the greatest. Injuries happen all the time in the trenches. An injury at offensive tackle to Michael Oher or Jared Gaither, for example, would result in a significant drop-off in talent.

Forecast: There is a lot of preseason hype surrounding the Ravens, and the offense shares those extremely high expectations. This unit has talent, depth and a developing third-year quarterback in Flacco, who, if healthy, should put up career-best numbers this season. As long as Cameron can get everyone to play nice and share the football, this offense should be one of the NFL's most effective units.

Brian Daboll
Brian Daboll has a new group of quarterbacks to work with in 2010.
Offensive coordinator: Brian Daboll

Team: Cleveland Browns

Offensive ranking in '09: No. 32

Biggest challenge: The Browns do not have a lot of talent to work with offensively. During Cleveland's four-game winning streak to end last season, Daboll had to get by with a lot of running and Wildcat formations with Josh Cribbs. Much of Cleveland's success will hinge on veteran quarterback Jake Delhomme, who had more than twice as many interceptions (18) last year than touchdowns (eight). If Daboll can get a bounce-back season out of Delhomme, that will be a good starting point for Cleveland's offense to improve.

Biggest strength: The left side of the offensive line is one of the NFL's best. Joe Thomas is considered by many to be the best left tackle in football, and Eric Steinbach has been a quality guard for years. Cleveland also hit in last year's draft with first-round pick Alex Mack, who appears to be one of the league's up-and-coming centers. This trio provides some stability to an otherwise unstable offense.

Biggest weakness: Cleveland's offense has several holes but the biggest is at wide receiver. Mohamed Massaquoi had a decent rookie year, but he's likely not ready to be a No. 1 receiver. Brian Robiskie had a good offseason but remains unproven, and Chansi Stuckey isn't a game-breaker. The Browns this week also added veteran Bobby Engram, who turned 37 this year. A case can be made that this is the worst group of receivers in the league.

Forecast: The Browns were ranked last in '09, so there's nowhere to go but up. There are a lot of question marks, and I don't see enough upgrades across the board to be optimistic about this unit. Whether Delhomme at this stage of his career is an upgrade over Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson also remains to be seen.