Please forgive me for this temporary diversion. We interrupt our regularly-scheduled program now that I've had my hands on the Madden 09 video game for a couple days now, which is enough time to provide a scouting report.
For all of my fellow gamers out there, here are my early impressions of the AFC North teams:
I've found the Browns to be far and away the toughest AFC North team in this game.
(Don't worry Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals fans. It's just a video game and things eventually will be settled on the field.)
Defensive tackle Shaun Rogers is an absolute monster. He holds his ground at the point of attack, and it's hard to consistently get rushing yards up the middle. I had a friend at my house yesterday who uses Cleveland and although I came out victorious, we had some hard-fought battles. Basically I beat him by using big receivers to post and run by his little corners. If you want to know my Madden team this year, I'm not telling. But I will give you a clue: I have one team in the AFC and one in the NFC. So if you want some, come get some!
Offensively the Browns are as versatile as you would expect. Quarterback Derek Anderson has a 95 throwing power (fair enough) and a 90 throwing accuracy (what???), therefore he is an elite signal caller in this game. If you keep receiver Braylon Edwards on one side of the field and tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. on the other, it makes it very difficult to pick and choose where you want to roll coverage. Running back Jamal Lewis runs through a lot of tackles and also has an extra burst that he didn't have in last year's game. Overall, they're a solid team to use in Madden, probably for the first time in the game's history.
For some reason, I've never had much success using Pittsburgh's offense in Madden. I think part of it was the smallish receivers, which I don't like, and another part of it was quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, whom I've never figured out how to use properly (any suggestions?). I do like Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth in double tight-end sets. Their height gives them the ability to body up almost any defender and keeps the chains moving. But my inability to get the ball to Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes consistently makes it tough.
If you're good at using the safety, this is the defense for you. Troy Polamalu is crazy fast, and even if you bite on play-action passes, he is fast enough to make up for the mistake. A lot of people have trouble running 3-4 defenses in Madden but Pittsburgh makes it easy. Its front seven is stout and tough to run on. Age on the defensive line isn't an issue in the game, of course. The Steelers' passing defense is not superb, but I wouldn't consider it weakness.
The Ravens are a team that only a few people can use. But if you're one of those people, they can be one of the toughest teams to beat in this game. The offense is shabby. The quarterbacks, whomever you choose, will drive you crazy when they miss throws most signal callers on other teams will make. That rules them out for me right there. But tight end Todd Heap is a reliable weapon for those that like to utilize the tight end. Running back Willis McGahee doesn't seem as solid as he was in last year's game, which hurts Baltimore. Derrick Mason will make catches, also, but it's not enough to convince me to play with them all the time.
The defense remains the best in the game. Their personnel is perfect for a game like Madden. They're big, physical and fast. And similar to real life, it's extremely difficult to do anything with this team, no matter which offense you use. Those special few who know how to play with the Ravens are those that love playing defense and can win games with field position and field goals. Not many people are like that. It's a video game and everyone wants to score points. But if you're a gamer that enjoys winning 10-7, the Ravens are for you.
The Bengals have been prolific in Madden on offense the past few years. But this year's offense is down a notch, which isn't a good sign. Tailback Rudi Johnson's ratings have dipped a bit this year and for me that's big. My strategy with the Bengals was to spread defenses with three wide receivers and let their offensive line and tight end Reggie Kelly open huge holes for Johnson to wear out opponents. When defenses started to focus on the running game, it was time for Carson Palmer to pick defenses apart with a stellar cast of receivers. But the offense line isn't as good as it used to be, both in the game or in real life, so my game plan from a year ago no longer works.
The defense always was a problem, but it was a tradeoff for having such a prolific offense. But now the offense is not as dominant and the defense could be worse in the game this year. There is not much awareness on this unit, which means play-action passes work often. So if you don't blitz and get a pass rush, you have no chance to stop anyone. In the past I was able to scheme and hide this porous unit just enough to win games, especially if my offense gave me the lead. But it's much tougher to do it now. Use the Bengals at your own peril.
How much will Madden 09 translate to real NFL football in the AFC North?
That remains to be seen.