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Friday, September 7, 2012
Final Word: AFC North

By Matt Williamson

NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 1:

Steelers’ inside running game: Pittsburgh lost first-rounder David DeCastro (knee), but their interior offensive line trio of Willie Colon, Maurkice Pouncey and Ramon Foster is a massive group that could be able to dominate Denver’s suspect interior triangle, which could be the team’s biggest weakness. Also, DE Elvis Dumervil will be at a disadvantage in the running game against Steelers OT Max Starks, and LB D.J. Williams will miss this game because of a suspension. That leaves the Broncos very vulnerable against a power running game, particularly up the middle. Pittsburgh will mix in small doses of Chris Rainey, but for the most part look for it to feature Isaac Redman and/or Jonathan Dwyer, two heavier power backs who could wear the Broncos down. Of course, this approach also would be very beneficial for keeping Peyton Manning on the sidelines as well as possibly opening shots deep downfield off play-action to Mike Wallace or Antonio Brown.

Cleveland's Brandon Weeden
The Browns will discover in Week 1 what kind of NFL quarterback they have in rookie Brandon Weeden.
Which Ravens’ offense will we see on Monday night? Over the past few seasons, Cam Cameron’s offense in Baltimore has been about as bland and predictable as any in the league. To some degree, that made sense considering Joe Flacco was a young quarterback adjusting to the NFL from a very small college and the fact that Baltimore had Ray Rice at its disposal. So why not feature the running game with some deep shots downfield that often came off play-action? But in today’s NFL, that style of offense can only take you so far. In the preseason, Baltimore featured a lot of no-huddle with Flacco being the focal point of the offense. This change could allow Baltimore to catch opposing defenses, Cincinnati in this case, in favorable personnel groupings and control the tempo of the game. But to run it successfully, Flacco needs to be very adept at exposing the weaknesses that Cincinnati’s defense presents to him and making the correct play calls before the snap. By the preseason indications, Baltimore is ready to trust Flacco with such responsibilities.

Bad draw for Browns, Weeden: The Browns’ Brandon Weeden is my least favorite of the five rookie starting quarterbacks starting across the NFL. He is a very good pocket passer with a big arm, but Weeden doesn’t move his feet well, can stare down receivers and hasn’t shown he is adept at handling pass-rush pressure. Well, the Eagles are a brutal opponent for this aged rookie’s first start, as their pass rush and defensive line rival any in the league. Philadelphia is extraordinarily deep up front and will consistently rotate fresh bodies into the game to attack upfield and disrupt Weeden, who can be statuesque in the pocket. Compounding matters, the Eagles’ corners figure to play a high percentage of press-man coverage, and the Browns’ young wide receivers have yet to show they can consistently beat such coverage at this level. This doesn’t bode well for the Browns or Weeden.

Where’s Ike? Almost as much as any team in the NFL, Pittsburgh likes to match up its top cornerback, Ike Taylor, on the opponent’s No. 1 receiver. When the Steelers and Broncos met last postseason, it was Demaryius Thomas against whom Taylor most often lined up. That ended poorly for Pittsburgh on what was Tim Tebow’s best day as a professional throwing the football. But Eric Decker was knocked out of that game and was not a factor. Because of his sticky hands and precision route running, Decker looks to be the more Peyton Manning-friendly target. It will be very interesting from the start of this game how Pittsburgh views the Broncos’ two starting wide receivers. It could be a tactic that Denver’s future opponents mimic going forward.

Cincinnati’s run game: Bernard Scott is a better outside runner, but BenJarvus Green-Ellis is the reliable between-the-tackles back who can sustain a large workload. Running against the Ravens is never an easy task, but in this matchup, going to the outside might be the preferred route, as Baltimore lost two elite outside run stoppers in Jarret Johnson, who is now with San Diego, and Terrell Suggs, who is sidelined with an Achilles injury. However, Scott might not be healthy for this contest and Cincinnati favors Green-Ellis overall. So assuming Green-Ellis is the main ball carrier, most of the Bengals’ runs should be aimed up the middle. That could be a problem considering Cincinnati’s interior line has been decimated with injuries and simply put, the Ravens are fantastic at stopping the inside run. So expect the Bengals to have to rely on Andy Dalton and the passing game plenty on Monday night.