AFC North: 2012 AFC pressure point

Pressure point: Steelers

May, 16, 2012
5/16/12
1:00
PM ET
NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the Pittsburgh Steelers and why.

The Steelers talked about running the ball more after parting ways with offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. It remains to be seen how the offense will look under Todd Haley, but the responsibility of the running game falls squarely on Isaac Redman.

An undrafted rookie out of Bowie State in 2009, Redman gets the first crack at being the Steelers' featured back this year. Rashard Mendenhall, the team's leading rusher for the past three seasons, is expected to miss at least the first six games of the season after having knee surgery in January, and Pittsburgh didn't draft a running back until the fifth round this year. At this point, the Steelers are saying this is Redman's job to lose.

The pressure is on Redman because this is more than holding onto the job for a season. Mendenhall is in the final year of his contract, so Redman is auditioning to be the primary runner for next year as well. Redman has earned this opportunity by his play after Mendenhall tore his ACL in the regular-season finale. He ran for 92 yards in the final regular-season game and 121 yards in the playoff loss at Denver.

The challenge for Redman is to prove he can handle the workload for a full season. He's had double-digit carries in only four of 36 career games (including the playoffs). Unless the Steelers sign a veteran before the regular season, there's no experienced safety net at running back. The backups behind Redman are Chris Rainey, Jonathan Dwyer, John Clay and Baron Batch. They have a combined 35 NFL carries. That's why the Steelers need Redman to step up and take charge of the position.

Pressure point: Ravens

May, 16, 2012
5/16/12
12:00
PM ET
NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the Baltimore Ravens and why.

Four of the the Ravens' five defensive coordinators in their history have gone on to become head coaches. Baltimore's defense has ranked in the top six in eight of the past nine years. So, there's tremendous pressure on new defensive coordinator Dean Pees to uphold the standard of excellence.

His job became much more difficult when linebacker Terrell Suggs, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, tore his Achilles. He also faces the delicate situation of how to handle team leaders Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, both of whom showed their age toward the end of last season. Then, add in the season-ending stretch where Baltimore faces seven Pro Bowl quarterbacks in its final eight games (they also account for five Super Bowl rings).

Pees is familiar with strong defenses. He spent the past two seasons as the Ravens’ linebackers coach after a six-year stint helping run Bill Belichick’s defense in New England. During Pees’ four-year tenure as defensive coordinator (2006-09), the Patriots were the only team in the NFL to finish in the top 10 in scoring defense each season. He now gets the keys to an aggressive Baltimore defense that ranked third in the NFL in sacks (48) and first in forced fumbles (21) last season.

In taking over the Ravens' defense, Pees called it a "humbling" opportunity. It's also a challenging one to follow in the footsteps of Marvin Lewis, Mike Nolan, Rex Ryan and Chuck Pagano.

Pressure point: Browns

May, 16, 2012
5/16/12
11:00
AM ET
NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the Cleveland Browns and why.

Hot seats in the NFL are typically reserved for head coaches and general managers. For the Browns, the heat is on team president Mike Holmgren.

The Browns added hope when they hired Holmgren as their top executive after he returned the Packers to prominence and guided the Seahawks to the Super Bowl. Rebuilding has been more of a challenge with the Browns, who have won nine games in Holmgren's two seasons. Instead of turning into a winner, the franchise has spun its wheels under Holmgren and the fan base is becoming skeptical.

This is a big year for the Holmgren regime because a potential franchise quarterback (Brandon Weeden) and star running back (Trent Richardson) were drafted in the first round to go with a top-10 defense. Holmgren has promised a "pretty good jump" for the Browns, so another four- or five-win season isn't going to cut it. It's time for Holmgren to erase past mistakes like keeping Eric Mangini around as head coach for a year and failing to trade up for quarterback Robert Griffin III in this year's draft.

Holmgren had a more immediate impact at his other stops. In Green Bay, he inherited a four-win team and led the Packers to the playoffs by his second season. In Seattle, he took over a team that hadn't been to the playoffs in 10 years and guided the Seahawks to the playoffs in his first season. The pressure is on Holmgren to show signs of a similar turnaround in Cleveland.

Pressure point: Bengals

May, 16, 2012
5/16/12
10:00
AM ET
NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the Cincinnati Bengals and why.

It would be easy to say Marvin Lewis faces a pivotal season because the Bengals coach is in the final year of a two-year extension. But, by all accounts, owner Mike Brown has approached Lewis a handful of times about a new deal, and it's Lewis who hasn't found time for a sitdown.

While it looks like there is no fear with job security, there is still a great amount of pressure on Lewis to take the Bengals to the next level. In his nine years as Bengals coach, Lewis has yet to win a playoff game or guide the team to consecutive winning seasons. If the Bengals want to elevate themselves to the ranks of the Steelers and the Ravens, Lewis has to get the Bengals to make noise in the postseason. During Lewis' tenure in Cincinnati, he has watched the Steelers win two Super Bowls and the Ravens reach the AFC Championship Game twice.

There's no question that Lewis is a good coach. He's done what others have failed to do in Cincinnati. Lewis has become the franchise's winningest coach, holding the team together through the death of a player (wide receiver Chris Henry), an extended holdout by his franchise quarterback (Carson Palmer) and numerous arrests. But Lewis' track record is his team wins when expectations are low but disappoints when the anticipation is high. And the buzz has never been higher in recent years than the 2012 season.

The Bengals surprisingly went to the playoffs last season and improved in most areas this offseason. Cincinnati upgraded at running back (BenJarvus Green-Ellis), guard (Travelle Wharton and Kevin Zeitler) and cornerback (Dre Kirkpatrick, Terence Newman and Jason Allen). The Bengals' top two offensive players from a year ago, quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green, are having their first full offseason with the team after last year's lockout.

What hangs over the franchise is the NFL's longest playoff win drought (21 seasons). It's up to Lewis to get this team to end that.

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