By Michael Thompson, aka “Reglidan”
The effect of the schedule
Last season, every team in the AFC North won at least half of its games through week 15 of the season. There were a couple of factors that contributed to this, but the most important was the schedule. Last season, the AFC North faced the NFC South, a division that had a team win the division at 7-8-1, as well as the AFC South, a division that saw its bottom two teams win a total of 5 games combined. These two divisions, which comprised half of every AFC North team’s schedule, had a total of 2 teams out the eight go .500 or better.
This season, the AFC North is scheduled against the NFC West, which has been considered by many to be the best overall division in the NFL for the past few seasons, and the AFC West, which saw 3 of its 4 teams go .500 or better in 2014. In other words, the division has traded games against Jacksonville, Tennessee, Tampa Bay, Atlanta, New Orleans, and Carolina for games against Oakland, San Diego, St. Louis, Arizona, San Francisco, and Seattle. The low 6 opponents in 2014 had a combined record of 27-68-1 versus the low 6 for this year, which had combined 2014 record of 49-47.
Of course, 2015 is not 2014 and these teams will not be the same this year as they were last year, but if the AFC North teams want to match their 2014 records, they will face a far more difficult road to get there. I would suspect that just the difference in the difficulty of the schedule alone will probably result in more losses for every AFC North team, perhaps only 1 per team, likely more in the range of 2, but perhaps as many as 3.
Cleveland Browns (7-9 2014)
It is fairly difficult to envision a scenario in which Cleveland matches its success in 2014. After their win over Atlanta on November 23, the Browns led the division at 7-4. It was the first time the team had a 7-4 record since the 2007 Derek Anderson-led team, which subsequently closed out the season 3-2, barely missing the playoffs. In contrast, the 2014 team completely collapsed, lost each of its remaining games, and ended the season with none of the hope that the team had going into the beginning of the 2008 season. Prior to the 2008 season, the team offered Anderson a 3-year contract, with the expectation that he would help them build on the success of the year before. Prior to the 2015 season, the team allowed Brian Hoyer, the quarterback under center for each of the 7 victories that contributed to their late season 7-4 mark, to walk in free agency. This is not to say that Hoyer is an excellent quarterback. He definitely had deficiencies, which became glaringly apparent toward the end of his time with the team. It is merely to say that the team’s moves during the off-season did not convey the same sense of hope for the future that was apparent during the off-season leading into the 2008 season.
Defensively, the team looks largely the same as it did last season. The biggest additions are rookie NT Danny Shelton, who had a very good camp and played well during the preseason, and ex-Packers’ CB Tramon Williams, who has had 28 career interceptions and looks to start as last year’s first round draft pick Justin Gilbert continues to struggle to adjust to the NFL. The defense is probably good enough to keep the Browns in games, though it can be said that the reason the pass defense has looked comparatively good on paper is that, in the past, teams have pretty much run on the Browns at will. I think the inclination for most football coaches, even for teams that like to pass, is to run if the other team allows them to do that. Running the ball is generally safer and leads to fewer turnovers. So if the Browns’ run defense is not significantly improved from last season, we will probably see teams continue to consume the clock against them with extended drives, which will result in slightly deflated scores, making the defense look better than it probably really is.
Offensively, it is difficult to see how this team is going to score many points. With WR Josh Gordon’s time with the team effectively finished, the front office acquired Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline, both of whom are competent receivers, but neither of whom really scare a defense the way that Gordon could. Combine those with last year’s free agent acquisition Andrew Hawkins from the Bengals, and undrafted free agent Taylor Gabriel, who had a productive, if not very exciting rookie campaign, and you are left with a competent receiving corps that could probably excel if someone like Aaron Rodgers was throwing the passes. The Browns, however, do not have Aaron Rodgers. They have Josh McCown, who had a few good games a couple of seasons ago when he had the fortune of offensive coordinator Marc Trestman to scheme his offense, and Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery to target. Aside from that brief period of time, McCown has been a relatively terrible NFL quarterback. At some point in the season, I expect Pettine to make the switch to Johnny Manziel and give him a nice long look, so that the front office can decide whether to select another high round quarterback in next year’s draft.
During the first half of 2014, prior to the devastating loss of center Alex Mack, (which was likely the injury that had the most impact on any team last year), the Browns had an effective zone-blocking rushing scheme under offensive coordinator Brian Shanahan, who departed for the same job on a different team, meaning the Browns are on their third offensive coordinator in three seasons. Rookies Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell did well enough in this scheme that the team felt veteran Ben Tate was expendable at the mid-point of the season and released him. Subsequently, the team has drafted yet another running back, Florida State’s Duke Johnson, traded away West for nearly nothing, and watched Crowell, now the default starter, struggle through a flat and miserable preseason.
Despite all of this, Browns offensive players seem confident that someone will flip on the light switch when the season starts and the offensive will produce enough to at least force teams to believe that they will need more than 17 points to beat the Browns. I am dubious. Of all of the AFC North teams, I suspect the Browns will be the most affected by the whiplash in the difficulty of the schedule between 2014 and 2015. Almost all of their historically winnable games occur in the first three weeks of the season. If the Browns fail to go at least 2-1 against the Jets, Titans, and Raiders, this could be a truly disastrous season – one in which I could easily see the team having the first overall pick in the draft.
Ironically, this is a year where I don’t see a true franchise quarterback in the college ranks.
Projected finish: 3-13 (with the distinct possibility of 1-15)
Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5 2014)
There was a general feeling among the Steelers’ faithful last year that after a couple of seasons of lackluster records, the team turned the corner in 2014 and was back on the path to former glory. The Steelers won the division and were back in the playoffs for the first time since 2011, when the Tim Tebow version of the Broncos eliminated them in the wild card round. The 2014 version of the Steelers met with the same fate, this time falling to the Ravens, their most bitter division rival. Pittsburgh has now not won a playoff game since the AFC Championship game in 2010. In fact, it was watching the first couple of rounds of the playoffs and seeing all of the AFC North teams, not just the Steelers, dispatched in relatively short order, with the division’s only victory occurring against itself that made me suspect that the success of the division was largely due to the fluke of scheduling described earlier. I am really not sure if the Steelers are that different from the team that had consecutive 8-8 records in 2012 and 2013.
Defensively, the Steelers are the weakest team in the division by far. It will probably be years before the team recovers from the loss of defensive guru Dick LeBeau. For a few years now, I’ve expected to see it click into place for some of these high round defensive picks the Steelers have made in recent drafts, but it never has, and for some of them, most likely never will. It is probably not entirely true because the Browns’ drafts, since, well, ever, have been galactically bad after the franchise came back into the league. But objectively, despite their history of drafting almost insanely well, the Steelers have gotten almost as little out of their drafts in recent years as the Browns have. Watching the Steelers’ preseason game against Buffalo was eye opening, because almost all of the same problems we saw last year with Pittsburgh’s defense were still there… only magnified. This defense really looks like it will struggle to keep the Steelers in games.
Luckily, the offense may be able to compensate for it, because the Steelers have great offensive weapons and a quarterback that can get them the ball. Antonio Brown may be the best wide receiver in the league behind Calvin Johnson. Le’Veon Bell is a productive running back that the team can feed the ball to set up play action and keep opposing defenses off balance. Roethlisberger has at least 2-3 years left before the inevitable decline begins, assuming that old injuries have not slowed him down significantly and the line can continue to protect him in 2015. This offense has the capacity to put a lot of points on the board, which it will probably need.
Overall, though, I am just not sure if half a great team is enough, especially when the other half of it is as bad as it seems to be. Pittsburgh is in the odd position, (for the Steelers), of having to play like a Peyton Manning led team … that is, having to win games 30-27 instead of grinding it out the way their most successful teams have in the past. If they make playoffs, and that is a large if, I suspect we will see another quick exit.
After all, it is the Steelers themselves who taught us that defense wins championships.
Projected finish: 9-7