- Jamison Hensley, ESPN Staff Writer
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Drum roll please ... my prediction for first place in the AFC North is the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Now, before you crack open an Iron City in celebration, I should let everyone know my track record when it comes to predictions. I'm very good at predicting games week to week. But I'm absolutely terrible at season predictions. Last season, my forecast for the division (from first to worst) was: Steelers, Ravens, Browns and Bengals. In other words, I was wrong on every team.
Here's the preview page for the Steelers. And here's five things you need to know about them:
1. They want to run the ball: At least, run the ball more than they did last season, when they kept it on the ground 42 percent of the time. The 434 rushing attempts in 2011 were the Steelers' second-fewest total in the past 20 years. New offensive coordinator Todd Haley has returned the fullback to the Steelers' offense, and set the tone in training camp by running on nearly every play in the first full-team drill. With starting running back Rashard Mendenhall (knee) expected to miss the first month of the season, the Steelers are turning to Isaac Redman, who has averaged 4.5 yards per carry in his two-year career and ran for 121 yards in the playoff loss at Denver. Durability is a question mark for Redman, because he's had double-digit carries in only four career games and missed time this preseason with an injured hip.
2. Top-ranked defense isn't satisfied: The Steelers' defense finished No. 1 last season for the third time in Mike Tomlin's five years as coach, but the players don't feel as if they were dominant on that side of the ball. Pittsburgh was tied for 17th in the NFL with 35 sacks, and ranked last with 15 takeaways. The Steelers either had no takeaways or just one in 13 of 17 games last season (including the playoffs). Increasing the pressure on quarterbacks should increase turnovers. Healthy versions of James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley -- they missed a combined 11 games last season -- would boost both sacks and takeaways.
3. Stability on offensive line is much-needed: The blockers for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger were stuck in a bad game of musical chairs last season. The Steelers used a league-high 25 different offensive-line combinations, and they started four players at left guard. Pittsburgh showed its commitment to creating some continuity on the line by selecting offensive linemen with its first two picks in the 2012 draft (guard David DeCastro and tackle Mike Adams) and by re-signing tackle Max Starks. The Steelers moved Willie Colon from tackle to left guard, and started DeCastro at right guard from the start of the preseason. DeCastro, injured in the preseason against Buffalo, might not play this season, however. Starks and Adams are battling for the left tackle job.
4. Cornerbacks will get tested: Even though the run defense dropped from first to eighth last season, the target is on the Steelers' unproven cornerbacks. Keenan Lewis, the nickelback last season, is taking over for William Gay. Lewis has fought through injuries in training camp to keep the starting job from Cortez Allen, who is expected to be the third corner. Quarterbacks aren't going to be throwing in the direction of Ike Taylor. Only 41 percent of passes were completed against the seven-year starter last season. That means the pressure is on Lewis and Allen, who have combined for one start and one interception in their careers.
5. Timing is right for Roethlisberger: The two-time Super Bowl winner turned 30 this year, hitting the prime of his career. And with the retirement of Hines Ward, all eyes are on Roethlisberger to lead this offense. The key to Roethlisberger has been and always will be his health. He's recovered from an ankle injury that derailed his season, and he doesn't seem concerned about a small tear in his rotator cuff. Roethlisberger, who has been sacked at least 40 times in five of his past six seasons, has built a reputation of playing through pain. Imagine what he could do in an injury-free season.
DIVISION FINISH: 1st -- With all of the camp drama now over, Pittsburgh has the fewest questions of any team in the division. As long as Roethlisberger remains healthy and the defense remains in the top five, the Steelers are the class of the division.