Summer Questions: AFC North
What's left to be learned about Ravens, Bengals, Browns, Steelers?
Training camps are just around the corner, with the Buffalo Bills getting things started when players report on July 18.
But while players enjoy their final weeks of vacation, front offices continue to contemplate the direction of their teams -- both for this season and the long term.
With that in mind, ESPN's NFL Nation reporters identify and answer a pressing question for every team in this week's Hot Read feature.
Q: Did Baltimore do enough this offseason to improve its offensive line?
A: The weakest part of the Ravens last season was their offensive line, and the team brought in only one significant newcomer. This has led to some concern, because that unit struggled to open holes in the ground game (a league-worst 3.1 yards per carry) and failed to protect quarterback Joe Flacco (sacked a career-worst 48 times).
But when you look at the big picture, the Ravens are in much better shape than they were last season.
PUTTING THE LEAGUE IN FOCUS
ESPN.com's Hot Read series takes an
in-depth look at the people and issues shaping the NFL's present and future:
• WR Marshall's mental health mission
• Josh McCown: Nine teams in 13 years
• Time's right for a minor league
• Inside a Hall of Famer's garage sale
• Philly hopeful's military journey
• 2015 QBs: Mariota, Winston, Hundley
Also see: NFL Hot Read home page
The Ravens traded three draft picks over the past nine months to acquire two starters: left tackle Eugene Monroe and center Jeremy Zuttah. Baltimore then gave an $11 million signing bonus to Monroe in free agency (currently seventh highest in the league among offensive tackles) and a $3.5 million bonus to Zuttah as part of an extension (11th highest among centers). This investment has undoubtedly improved the Ravens from where they were last year with offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie and center Gino Gradkowski, both of whom rated near the bottom of their positions last season.
The team focused on upgrading at left tackle and center because it's banking on improving at both guard spots without making a move. Left guard Kelechi Osemele and right guard Marshal Yanda didn't play up to expectations last year due to injuries. Osemele missed the final nine games after having back surgery, and Yanda finished as the 16th-best guard, according to Pro Football Focus, after having shoulder surgery before the season. With both now at full strength, the Ravens believe they could be dominant this season.
The biggest question mark is at right tackle. The Ravens lost five-year starter Michael Oher in free agency when the Tennessee Titans overpaid for him (four years, $20 million). At this point, the Ravens have penciled in Ricky Wagner, a fifth-round pick from a year ago, as the starter. But, other than right tackle, the Ravens did the best they could to upgrade their most vulnerable unit.
-- Jamison Hensley
Q: How will the Bengals' plans for a more physical, run-based offense impact quarterback Andy Dalton?
A: From the day he was introduced as the Bengals' new offensive coordinator, Hue Jackson has been adamant that his unit has to focus on running the ball. He has also made it clear he doesn't plan to abandon the passing game. With a more defined and better executed rushing attack, he believes Cincinnati's passing offense can open up for more big plays, more efficiency and more scoring. If each of those areas improves, the Bengals believe they finally will get over the playoff hump and win their first playoff game since the 1990 season.
Dalton will be a big key if they are to break through in the playoffs. In January, he was a major reason why they lost in the wild-card round, throwing two interceptions and losing a fumble in the second half against San Diego. It's possible the game would've transpired differently if former offensive coordinator Jay Gruden hadn't abandoned the run in the second half. After starting with six strong first-half carries, BenJarvus Green-Ellis touched the ball only twice in the second half -- on the first two plays of the third quarter.
By putting an emphasis on the running game this season, the pressure on Dalton's shoulders should be eased immensely. It won't solely be up to him to crank out a big play with his arm or legs. He'll have a playmakers to turn to both in the screen-passing game as well as the ground game. The rushing focus will also impact Dalton in the sense that he'll be put in a better rhythm. Jackson's plans are to run at a higher pace that will force Dalton to get the offense to the line of scrimmage quicker than in the past. During a four-game win streak in October that included 11 touchdown passes, we saw how good Dalton can be when he gets in a rhythm. Jackson's run-game emphasis should impact Dalton positively.
-- Coley Harvey
Q: What have new general manager Ray Farmer and head coach Mike Pettine brought to the Browns that was missing?
A: Stability and a clearer sense of direction.
Make no mistake, the two have benefited from the work done during last year's draft by Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi, when trades procured extra draft picks that led to the acquisition of quarterback Johnny Manziel and cornerback Justin Gilbert.
But the way Farmer and Pettine have gone about things has been refreshing. There is a better sense of direction and focus and a better sense of what the team believes its identity should be.
Pettine has a vision for his defense. It's one he has thought about and studied and dissected -- and can explain. He appreciates and understands good offense. Pettine is not Bill Belichick, but one of the reasons Belichick's offenses are so successful (aside from Tom Brady) is that Belichick understands well how to attack a defense. Pettine brings some of those same qualities.
Pettine answers questions directly. He speaks the same way. He's the son of a coach who acts as if he has been raised to coach. His answers have logic and thought behind them, and he's not afraid to answer. Honesty is always a good sign.
Farmer is just as honest and open. He's not trying to reinvent the wheel with his moves, rather he simply wants to build a winning team. He sets ego aside to pick players who fit the coach's system.
The most important part has yet to play out. Nobody knows if this will work on the field, and the expected loss of Josh Gordon to a yearlong suspension will be crippling to the offense.
But it shouldn't hurt down the road, because for the first time in a long time there is reason to believe in the Browns for the long term.
Which is a large step for a franchise that has floundered so badly in recent years.
-- Pat McManamon
Q: Will a revamped Steelers defense be significantly better in 2014?
A: Old, slow and done -- Warren Sapp's infamous assessment of a proud defense after the Steelers got drilled in their 2011 regular-season opener at Baltimore -- no longer applies.
Well, at least the first two parts of it don't. The Steelers' projected starting lineup this season will have an average age of 27.1 years. New free safety Mike Mitchell provides an infusion of speed in the secondary, something the Steelers badly needed, and first-round pick Ryan Shazier can flat-out fly.
Shazier may be the fastest player on the Steelers' defense, and he plays inside linebacker. If Shazier, who has stood out during offseason practices, continues to progress, he will start alongside Lawrence Timmons. That upgrade at weakside inside linebacker and a bulked-up Steve McLendon, who will again start at nose tackle, should help improve the rushing defense.
The Steelers gave up an average of 115.6 rushing yards per game last season, an obscene number for a defense that is usually among the NFL's best at stopping the run. Ranking 21st in the NFL in rushing defense is unacceptable, as coordinator Dick LeBeau's defenses are predicated on stopping the run and forcing teams into obvious passing situations.
LeBeau's defenses also rely heavily on outside linebackers putting consistent pressure on the quarterback, and that may be the biggest question facing the Steelers. The outside linebackers currently on the roster have combined for 24 career sacks, and there isn't much depth at the position. The Steelers need Jarvis Jones to make a big jump in his second season and Jason Worilds, who led the team with eight sacks in 2013, to stay healthy.
If the Steelers give quarterbacks too much time this season, it will only put more strain on a secondary that will start 34-year-old Ike Taylor at cornerback a season after opposing teams routinely picked on him.
-- Scott Brown
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