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Preseason Watch List: AFC North

A detailed look at the key questions facing each team in the preseason

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens will return to the Under Armour Performance Center in Owings Mills on July 25th with an unbridled sense of accomplishment following their Super Bowl victory. In spite of winning the title last year, the Ravens have plenty of room for improvement. Consider the Ravens finished in the middle of the pack offensively (10th in points, 16th in yards) and defensively (12th in points allowed, 17th in yards allowed) last season, and said goodbye to key contributors including Anquan Boldin, Dannell Ellerbe, Paul Kruger, Ray Lewis, Bernard Pollard, Ed Reed and Cary Williams.  

Preseason Game Schedule

  • 8/8 -- @Tampa Bay (7:30 ET)
  • 8/15 -- Atlanta (7:30 ET)
  • 8/22 -- Carolina (8:00 ET)
  • 8/29 -- @St. Louis (8:00 ET)

What We're Watching

  • Will Jim Caldwell pick up where the Ravens left off? -- The Ravens averaged more than 400 yards of offense once Jim Caldwell replaced Cam Cameron as offensive coordinator late in the season, and it was Caldwell's willingness to entrust Joe Flacco that led to the Super Bowl run and all-time great performance by the signal caller. Will the Ravens pick up where they left off, or fall back into the conservative trappings that typified the team in recent years? 
  • How large a role will Bernard Pierce have? -- Ray Rice has publicly endorsed giving Bernard Pierce a larger role, believing that fewer carries will keep Rice fresh for a playoff run. Fantasy owners are worried though as Rice has been one of the NFL's few true workhorses. 
  • Who steps up at receiver? -- Anquan Boldin is now a 49er, which means someone must step into a starting role opposite Torrey Smith. Jacoby Jones, Tandon Doss and Deonte Thompson are the odds on favorites to vie for the #2 and #3 roles. 
  • Is Dennis Pitta an elite tight end? -- Pitta was exemplary last year (61 receptions for 669 yards and 7 touchdowns) and has fantasy owners targeting him in the early rounds. While Boldin's departure should benefit Pitta, it's unclear whether he's really in line for a significant increase in targets -- particularly with Ed Dickson healthy and ready to contribute. 
  • Managing the defensive exodus -- Losing six defensive starters is never an easy transition, but the Ravens are faced with that reality. Rookies Arthur Brown (ILB) and Matt Elam (SS) will be given opportunities to start immediately, while veterans Chris Canty (DE), Elvis Dumervil (OLB) and Michael Huff (FS) will be counted on to play significant roles in their first season in Baltimore. 

Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals return to Paul Brown Stadium on July 25th for training camp, and have agreed for the 2nd time in franchise history to be part of HBO's Hard Knocks reality show. The HBO filmmakers will likely see a much more confident squad this time around, as the Bengals are coming off a division-winning 10-6 record and have young, talented play makers on both sides of the ball. The defense enters this season a more fully formed entity, finishing 8th in points allowed and finishing 3rd in the NFL with 51 sacks. The offense has more room for improvement after finishing 7th in passing yards and 12th in rushing yards, but giving up 46 sacks while turning the ball over 26 times.  

Preseason Game Schedule

  • 8/8 -- @Atlanta (8:00 ET)
  • 8/17 -- Tennessee (7:00 ET)
  • 8/24 -- @Dallas (8:00 ET)
  • 8/29 -- Indianapolis (7:00 ET)

What We're Watching

  • Giovani Bernard vs. BenJarvus Green-Ellis -- Gio Bernard has the tools to be a franchise cornerstone, and is the long-term answer at running back. What's not clear though is whether Bernard will be given a chance to compete for the job this year or will instead intern behind reliable-yet-unexciting incumbent BenJarvus Green-Ellis
  • Mohamed Sanu vs. Marvin Jones vs. Andrew Hawkins -- QB Andy Dalton ranked 7th in the NFL with 27 touchdowns passes and would love to have a reliable target emerge opposite A.J. Green. Each candidate brings a distinct skill set to the equation, which makes this a fascinating preseason battle. 
  • How quickly will Tyler Eifert push Jermaine Gresham? -- Gresham hasn't been a bad player (172 receptions in three seasons) but he's yet to post a top 10 fantasy season in spite of being among the most targeted players at his position. The Bengals drafted Tyler Eifert in the April draft and he projects as a possible Pro Bowler in the future. Yet tight ends typically take a season or two to acclimate, which begs the question of whether Gresham should fear for his playing time in 2013? 
  • What does James Harrison have left in the tank? -- James Harrison has been counted out before, and is betting on the Bengals to help him prove how wrong the division-rival Steelers were for letting him go. 
  • Three-way battle for strong safety -- Taylor Mays, Shawn Williams and Jeromy Miles all want the starting job, and the coaches appear ready to let each of them make their case during training camp. 

Cleveland Browns

The Browns have a tough road ahead with three playoff-worthy teams in the division, but there is reason for optimism thanks to a top-to-bottom overhaul starting with new general manager Mike Lombardi and head coach Rob Chudzinski. Chudzinski and offensive coordinator Norv Turner will be tasked with turning around an uninspiring offense that ranked 24th in points scored last season and failed to gain an identity under 1st year quarterback Brandon Weeden. On defense, new coordinator Ray Horton will be implementing an aggressive, 3-4 zone blitzing scheme that has been the hallmark of division rival Pittsburgh for years.  

Preseason Game Schedule

  • 8/8 -- St. Louis (8:00 ET)
  • 8/15 -- Detroit (7:30 ET)
  • 8/24 -- @Indianapolis (7:00 ET)
  • 8/29 -- @Chicago (8:00 ET)

What We're Watching

  • Jimmy Haslam's legal quandary -- Browns owner Jimmy Haslam is embroiled in a federal probe into his business practices, with several of his company's employees already indicted for fraud. Haslam maintains his innocence, but the distraction of a Federal probe could portend more ominous things for the franchise's future if his innocence comes into question. 
  • Is Brandon Weeden an NFL starter? -- Weeden had an abysmal 2.7% TD rate last year and threw more interceptions than touchdowns while struggling to complete passes down field (even though his deep ball was supposedly a strength). Chudzinski and Turner need to determine if Weeden is the long-term answer, and that begins by getting him acclimated to their system and playbook. 
  • Trent Richardson's health -- Richardson has the ability and skill set be one of the league's best, but he struggled last year (3.6 yards per rush) and dealt with a number of 'minor' injuries. Now news comes that he may not be 100% for the start of training camp as he rehabs a shin injury. Richardson must stay healthy for the Browns to have any hope of turning around their fortunes.  
  • Josh Gordon's maturity -- Gordon was a revelation last year as he went from supplementary draft pick to clear cut #1 receiver. Unfortunately Gordon faces a 2-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy, and may be one violation away from a year-long ban.  
  • Transitioning to the 3-4 defense -- Ray Horton is installing an attacking, zone blitzing 3-4 defense; a scheme that runs counter to former defensive coordinator Dick Jauron in every way. While Horton's scheme may yield dividends, he'll also get help by free agent bounty Paul Kruger and 1st round Barkevious Mingo

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers finished the 2012 season with an 8-8 record and uncharacteristically missed the playoffs, largely on the back of an uninspiring offense under new offensive coordinator Todd Haley. The Steelers used to be known for a dominating rushing attack, but were among the league's worst last year (26th in yards, 27th in touchdowns, 28th in yards per attempt). Head coach Mike Tomlin knows that his defense is Super Bowl worthy, but aging -- which means the offense has to rise to the occasion in camp when the team descends upon Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, PA. 

Preseason Game Schedule

  • 8/10 -- New York Giants (7:30 ET)
  • 8/19 -- @Washington (8:00 ET)
  • 8/24 -- Kansas City (7:30 ET)
  • 8/29 -- @Carolina (7:30 ET)

What We're Watching 

  • Can Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley find common ground? -- Ben Roethlisberger was frustrated at times with OC Todd Haley's approach, but neither are going anywhere and they've said all the right things this offseason. It's imperative they find cohesion during the preseason in order to improve on last year's 22nd ranked offense.  
  • Is Le'Veon Bell ready for prime time? -- The Steelers were among the worst rushing teams in the league a year ago and head coach Mike Tomlin won't accept a repeat performance. Pittsburgh hopes Le'Veon Bell -- the 230 lbs. rookie from Michigan State -- will be the answer. If Bell can master blitz pickup in the preseason, fantasy owners are going to bet big on Bell's upside. 
  • Is Emmanuel Sanders equipped to replace Mike Wallace? -- The Steelers let Mike Wallace leave in free agency in part because they believe Emmanuel Sanders is ready to excel in his fourth season. Last year in the WR3 role Sanders netted 75 targets, but should see 100+ comfortably this year as a starter.  
  • Coaching up the young offensive line -- The Steelers have one of the league's youngest projected starting lines with Ramon Foster (27) the 'veteran' of the group. This unit holds a lot of promise, but must work together to build consistency and cohesion. Mike Adams' recovery from an offseason stabbing might be a fly in the ointment as he won't be available for the bulk of the preseason. 
  • Finding a stand in for Heath Miller -- Heath Miller was having a career-best season (71 receptions for 816 yards and 8 TDs) when he tore multiple ligaments in Week 16. His recovery is going well but Miller is a long shot to be ready to start the season. The Steelers will need either Matt Spaeth, David Paulson or Jamie McCoy to step up.  
  • Jason Worilds vs. Jarvis Jones -- Jason Worilds has struggled with injuries but likely gets first crack at replacing James Harrison. But Worilds will be pressured by rookie 1st rounder Jarvis Jones -- who was a pass rushing machine at Georgia.  

More from Jason Wood:

On Second Thought: Defenses and Kickers - August 28
On Second Thought: Running Backs - August 28
On Second Thought: Tight Ends - August 28
On Second Thought: Quarterbacks - August 28
On Second Thought: Wide Receivers - August 28
What If Roddy White or Julio Jones Are Lost for the Season? - August 19
What If Robert Griffin III Is Lost for the Season? - August 19
What If Cecil Shorts Is Lost for the Season? - August 19
Player Spotlight: Philip Rivers - August 8
Player Spotlight: Jordan Cameron - August 7