AFC North: Hope and Concern

The AFC North blog concludes its "Hope and Concern" series with the quarterback position of the Cincinnati Bengals.

Biggest reason for hope: a fresh start

Whether rookie second-round pick Andy Dalton turns out to be the long-term solution remains to be seen. But there is no denying the Bengals needed to blow up the team and start over. Dalton and first-round pick A.J. Green usher in a new era in Cincinnati. Veteran quarterback Carson Palmer and receiver Chad Ochocinco had plenty of time to make a title run but failed to win a single playoff game in eight seasons. With Palmer and Ochocinco both wanting out and heading for retirement and a release, respectively, the path is clear for Dalton to establish himself. The Bengals believe he is the best rookie to fit their new West Coast offense. Dalton certainly will have no shortage of weapons to work with such as Green, Jermaine Gresham, Jordan Shipley, Jerome Simpson, Andre Caldwell and potentially tailback Cedric Benson, who is a pending free agent.

Biggest reason for concern: inexperience

Assuming Palmer sticks to his word and doesn't return to Cincinnati, the team has virtually no experience at the quarterback position. Dalton, like most young quarterbacks, is certainly due for some growing pains. Backups Jordan Palmer and Dan LeFevour also combine for zero NFL starts between them, which doesn't leave much insurance in the event Dalton isn't ready. Add in a new system and mostly young skill players, and the Bengals could struggle on offense, especially early in the season. This is a rebuilding year in Cincinnati. So the Bengals are at least two seasons away from being a contender. A lot will depend on how quickly Dalton develops and whether he can solidify the quarterback position in Palmer's absence. Also, look for Cincinnati to try to add a veteran backup to help provide some stability at quarterback.
The AFC North blog continues its "Hope and Concern" series Tuesday by taking a look at the pass rush of the Baltimore Ravens.

Biggest reason for hope: increased aggressiveness

New Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano believes he has the answer to Baltimore's pass-rushing woes. According to Pagano, increased aggression should up Baltimore's sack numbers. The Ravens recorded just 27 sacks last season in 16 games, which was ranked No. 27 in the league. Too often the Ravens didn't seem sure when to bring additional pressure and when to stay back in coverage. Former defensive coordinator Greg Mattison bolted for the University of Michigan, opening the door for Pagano to implement a more aggressive style. Drafting cornerback Jimmy Smith in the first round is a strong sign Baltimore plans to put more trust in its cornerbacks this season while bringing extra rushers.

Biggest reason for concern: personnel

With the exception of Terrell Suggs, the Ravens simply do not have the personnel to get to the quarterback. The two most natural pass rushers on the roster are Suggs and 2010 top draft pick Sergio Kindle, who fractured his skull last summer and whose status remains in question. Anything Baltimore gets from Kindle this season should be considered a bonus. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (5.5 sacks) has pass-rushing ability, but that's far down the line of things he's asked to do. Linebacker Jarret Johnson, whose stats dropped to just 1.5 sacks last season, is a player who gets to the quarterback on sheer will. The Ravens may look to free agency to find a proven pass rusher. But there are not many answers on the open market, because teams do not let go of those type of players.
We continue our "Hope and Concern" series Friday with the offensive line of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Biggest reason for hope: Health

There were games last season when Pittsburgh's depth was thoroughly tested. Starting left tackle Max Starks suffered a season-ending neck injury in November in addition to lesser injuries to others members of the line. Jonathan Scott was inconsistent filling in for Starks, leading the Steelers to draft tackle Marcus Gilbert in the second round. Gilbert should provide depth as a rookie and a potential fill-in behind Starks or aging veteran Flozell Adams. Rookie Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, who missed the Super Bowl with an ankle injury, is healthy again and should be even better in his second season. Chris Kemoeatu is a solid but not great left guard. Pittsburgh still has questions at right guard. Pending free agent Willie Colon is a possibility to return.

Biggest reason for concern: Pass protection

Pittsburgh's sack numbers are staggering. Steelers starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked 221 times the past five seasons. That’s an average of 44 times per season, and Roethlisberger even missed four games in 2010 due to a suspension. Roethlisberger does have a penchant for holding the football, but that doesn’t absolve the Steelers’ offensive line of 200-plus sacks. The Steelers have good run blockers up front, but they are mostly average or below average pass protectors. Roethlisberger is often forced to run around and fight off defenders after his first read. As a result, he has taken a beating and suffered multiple injuries the past few years. As Roethlisberger, 29, gets older, Pittsburgh needs to find a way for its quarterback to take less of a pounding.
This week marks the return of the "Hope and Concern" series in the AFC North blog. But this time, we will examine certain positions.

On Thursday we start with the much-maligned Cleveland Browns receivers.

Biggest reason for hope: West Coast offense

It's hard to describe the style of offense the Browns were running the past two seasons under former head coach Eric Mangini and former offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. Archaic and simplistic are some words that come to mind. Cleveland's passing game was very conservative and it was a big reason why president Mike Holmgren made the coaching change to an offensive mind in Pat Shurmur. The Browns believe running a better system -- in this case the West Coast offense -- will make Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie better players. Neither starter could get open consistently, but better routes and play-calling might help this upcoming season. The West Coast offense also plays much better to quarterback Colt McCoy's biggest strength, which is his accuracy.

Biggest reason for concern: Lack of athleticism

The Browns are one of the slowest teams in the NFL, and it shows in their receiving corps. Neither Massaquoi nor Robiskie is considered a speed burner who can get behind the defense. That makes it easy for opponents to defend Cleveland's offense and stack the line of scrimmage against standout running back Peyton Hillis. In my opinion, the ceilings for Massaquoi and Robiskie are not very high. Although the pair certainly can play better and work on consistency, what we've seen from them athletically the past two seasons is pretty much what the Browns have. It would help if Cleveland found a legitimate No. 1 receiver to take the pressure off Robiskie and Massaquoi. The Browns are high on second-round pick Greg Little, who could help but might need time to develop after missing all of 2010 via suspension. Little is not a deep threat, but he's big enough and athletic enough to fight defenders for jump balls and can break tackles after the catch. Little potentially could bring the type of athleticism to the offense Robiskie and Massaquoi both lack.