AFC North: 2014 NFL Training Camp Preview

Camp preview: Cincinnati Bengals

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
10:00
AM ET
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NFL Nation's Coley Harvey examines the three biggest issues facing the Cincinnati Bengals heading into training camp.

Stay healthy: As Cincinnati saw last year, injuries that arise in training camp and the preseason can have a big impact on the rest of the season. Among the biggest preseason setbacks last year were receiver Andrew Hawkins' ankle injury and linebacker Emmanuel Lamur's shoulder injury. Hawkins was hurt attempting to dive for a ball in practice, and Lamur got banged up during the preseason finale against the Colts. Hawkins was placed on injured reserve with the designation to return (by Week 9), but Lamur was lost for the year. Without Lamur, the Bengals had to use linebackers and additional defensive backs to accomplish everything they previously had planned to do defensively with him on the field. Just as it will be for every team, the focus this training camp will be on working hard but minimizing injury.

Continuing to push the tempo: During the mandatory minicamp and voluntary organized team activities, the Bengals harped on tempo and pacing, and how they want to push both offensively this season. If the Bengals are able to carry over what they did in May and June, they'll be calling plays faster than in recent years. The goal for new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is getting his unit into a rhythm for four quarters, running a lot of plays, and the affect that tempo will have on opposing defenses by the end of the game. Watch during camp for how in sync the Bengals are while playing up-tempo offensively.

Establishing defensive rotations: The Bengals are going through their share of defensive changes, too. Former linebackers coach Paul Guenther takes over as the new defensive coordinator, getting his first chance to serve as a lead assistant on an NFL team. In years past, he already had a fairly large impact on Cincinnati's defense, setting linebacker rotations and helping draw up blitz packages for the entire unit. He's been praised by current and former players for his attention to detail. The organization's hope is that he'll be coaching the full defense the way he did his position group. You'll notice often this season that the Bengals will rotate players in and out of various position groups based on the sub-package personnel they want to trot onto the field. You'll even see them do some switching at the line of scrimmage, as ends might rotate sides or switch into interior positions during pre-snap maneuvers. The goal has always been to mask coverages and rushes, and to confuse offenses, but Guenther's scheme seems as if it will predicate itself on keeping an offense more off rhythm than even Mike Zimmer's defense did. It will be interesting to note some of the many defensive rotations that arise during training camp and preseason as the roster starts getting smaller.

Camp preview: Pittsburgh Steelers

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
10:00
AM ET
» NFC Preview: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

NFL Nation’s Scott Brown examines the three biggest issues facing the Pittsburgh Steelers heading into training camp:

Continued growth on offense: The Steelers averaged 26.6 points in winning six of their final eight games last season, and the foundation is in place for them to build on that. It all starts with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who didn’t miss a snap last season and is still in the prime of his career. Roethlisberger never looked more in control than when he was running the no-huddle offense, something the Steelers did frequently in the second half of the season. The offseason practices were critical for Roethlisberger and new wide receivers (Lance Moore) and younger ones (Markus Wheaton) to work together in the no-huddle offense. Roethlisberger said the Steelers will add to their no-huddle playbook during the offseason and training camp before picking the best plays. He must be in sync with the wide receivers; Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery must be replaced for the no-huddle attack to hum again. Repetitions during training camp and preseason practice are critical, especially because the players will be in pads and hitting one another. That means the Steelers’ wide receivers especially have to stay relatively healthy during the most important time for team building, developing a rapport with Roethlisberger and earning his trust.

Getting after the quarterback: The Steelers managed just 34 sacks last season, their lowest total since 1990, and they must get more production from their outside linebackers. Jason Worilds supplanted LaMarr Woodley at left outside linebacker the second half of last season and led the Steelers with eight sacks. Worilds, hampered by a nagging calf injury during offseason practices, has to show that he can be a pass-rushing force for more than half a season. The former second-round pick has no one blocking his path to the field with Woodley now in Oakland. Jarvis Jones has to justify the Steelers using the 17th overall pick of the 2013 draft on him. The former Georgia All-American managed just one sack as a rookie but has improved his strength both physically and in regard to his grasp of the playbook. Jones also has Joey Porter mentoring him, and the Steelers will give Jones every opportunity to succeed. Depth is a concern at outside linebacker, so in addition to providing a consistent pass rush, Worilds and Jones have to stay healthy. If general manager Kevin Colbert is looking to add depth, Steelers fans will be quick to remind him that James Harrison is only a phone call away. What would most help the defense, however, is if Jones can provide the same kind of pass rush that Harrison supplied from the right side of the Steelers’ defense when Harrison made the Pro Bowl in five consecutive seasons.

Improving their run game and rushing defense: The Steelers struggled running the ball and stopping it in 2013. Both still matter, even at a time when NFL teams are slinging the ball early and often and using the pass to set up the run. Le’Veon Bell should improve on his 3.5 yards per carry in his second season, and the Steelers have improved their overall talent at running back. LeGarrette Blount is a significant upgrade over Jonathan Dwyer and third-round pick Dri Archer is a burner who gives the Steelers a home-run threat in the backfield. The Steelers should significantly improve on the 86.4 rushing yards they averaged in 2013. Not as certain is whether the Steelers will be appreciably better in stopping the run after yielding 115.6 rushing yards per game last season. Nose tackle Steve McLendon has gotten bigger and appears ready to assert himself this season, but defensive end opposite Cameron Heyward is a question mark. First-round pick Ryan Shazier should be an upgrade at weakside inside linebacker, but he will inevitably endure some rookie struggles, even if he is ready to start this season. Everything with the Steelers’ defense starts with shutting down the run, so it has to do a much better job this season.
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NFL Nation's Jamison Hensley examines the three biggest issues facing the Baltimore Ravens heading into training camp.

Filling in for Ray Rice's expected absence: The Ravens are coming off the worst rushing season in franchise history and likely will have to revive the ground game without having Rice for a period of time. He is expected to be suspended by the NFL for his off-the-field incident this offseason. After not signing a high-profile free agent such as LeGarrette Blount, the Ravens are left with no experienced starters in the backfield beyond Rice. Bernard Pierce, Justin Forsett and Lorenzo Taliaferro have combined for eight career starts. Pierce is the favorite to take over the starting job, but he was limited this entire offseason after having shoulder surgery. Forsett, the primary backup this spring, had a total of six carries last season. And Taliaferro is a fourth-round rookie from Coastal Carolina. Defenses could see a heavy dose of Pierce if he's healthy, or the Ravens could go with a running back by committee. Even when Rice returns, he has to prove he can be a productive runner again after averaging a career-worst 3.1 yards per carry last season. The Ravens believe they can turn around their running attack with the hiring of offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, who has built successful ground games in the past with his zone-blocking scheme.

Sorting out secondary competition: Two of the biggest questions on defense involve position battles in the secondary -- free safety and nickelback. The competition at free safety didn't unfold as expected this spring. It was presumed that Terrence Brooks was the front-runner for the job after the Ravens selected him in the third round. Instead, Brooks hasn't seen time with the first or second teams this offseason, and Darian Stewart has taken most of the reps at free safety. When the Ravens signed Stewart in free agency, he was considered a fallback option. He had six starts last season for the St. Louis Rams. Now, it looks as if free safety is Stewart's job to lose. At nickelback, Asa Jackson and Chykie Brown were fighting for the job all offseason. But it was presumed the Ravens would add a veteran when neither stood out this offseason. The Ravens, in fact, brought in two free agents, Aaron Ross and Dominique Franks, to make it a four-player race for the No. 3 corner spot behind starters Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb. If Ross and Stewart end up winning the open jobs, they can thank secondary coach Steve Spagnuolo, who previously coached them in the NFL.

Preparing Rick Wagner to start at right tackle: The Ravens were expected to draft an offensive tackle. They didn't. There was speculation the Ravens might sign free agent Eric Winston, who has ties with Kubiak. But again, the Ravens didn't make a move. By standing pat, the team has given a major vote of confidence to Wagner. A fifth-round pick from a year ago, he has been penciled in to replace Michael Oher, who signed with the Tennessee Titans in free agency. As a rookie last year, Wagner struggled when he had to replace an injured Oher in the season opener. Wagner improved throughout his rookie year as the team's No. 6 offensive lineman, playing when the team wanted an extra blocker on the field (12 percent of the offensive snaps). The Ravens realized Wagner needs a lot of snaps to gain confidence in his technique, and they've been giving him plenty of reps during offseason practices. If Wagner doesn't live up to expectations when the hitting begins in training camp, the Ravens have other options. They could move left guard Kelechi Osemele to right tackle, give Ryan Jensen more snaps at that position or sign Winston. At this point, the Ravens are banking on Wagner as their season-opening starter at right tackle.

Camp preview: Cleveland Browns

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
10:00
AM ET
» NFC Preview: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South


NFL Nation's Pat McManamon examines the three biggest issues facing the Cleveland Browns heading into training camp.

Manziel or Hoyer: Another training camp, another quarterback competition. Except this one includes not just any quarterback, but the player whose nickname -- Johnny Football -- is the sport itself. It's Brian Hoyer's job to lose. He's the starter based on the smallest sample size of games in recent memory. He started three games and won two, but left the third after six minutes after suffering a torn knee ligament. But Hoyer was so decisive and quick in his reads that he earned the chance to begin camp as the starter. His life seemed nearly ideal on May 1. He was the unchallenged guy for the Browns, and of the quarterbacks eligible in the draft, few were considered immediate starters. The Browns drafted the one who is. Now fans and the media will be wondering about Johnny Manziel every day. Hoyer's success could depend on how well he deals with an environment that has crushed the spirit of others, an environment in which it will seem like the entire world is waiting for him to fail.

New coaches, again: Change brings new approaches, new playbooks, new thinking. It takes time for the players to learn and assimilate. If there's anything Browns fans are accustomed to, it's the quotes about how well the offseason went with a new coaching staff: "The guys are working hard"; "We should be able to pick it up"; "It's just a matter of terminology." And there's the old favorite: "He's a player's coach." Mike Pettine has done a lot to like. He's straightforward and thoughtful. He's football-smart and precise. He has a system he believes in and wants to implement. But asking players to run three different systems in three different seasons is a lot. There are reasons to like the new staff and systems. But there were just as many reasons to like the new staff and systems a year ago. What happens on the field starting in September -- not August -- will reveal how quickly the team has learned and taken in the new approaches.

Running on: Maybe it's because the running game was so blatantly ignored last year, but it's encouraging to see the Browns build a running game with a successful system and with capable backs. Amid all the hoopla about Manziel, the key to the Browns winning this season may come down to how well the Browns play defense and run the ball. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's run-game approach is borrowed from his father, Mike Shanahan, who has had success with it throughout his career. The Shanahans have turned low-round backs into Pro Bowlers, using a zone-read system based on athletic linemen and a running back being able to find and hit the hole aggressively and quickly. In Ben Tate and Terrance West, the Browns seem to have a pair of backs who can offset each other. In Joe Thomas, Alex Mack, Joel Bitonio, John Greco and Mitchell Schwartz, the Browns seem to have a smart group of offensive linemen who can move and play well in this system. It will take time, but the running game could provide early encouragement.

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