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NFL Season Preview: AFC North
By: Staff Writer - StatFox
Published: 8/7/2014  at  12:01:00 PM
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To get you prepared for the upcoming NFL season, we continue our run of all 32 team previews, rolling out two divisions per week throughout August. For complete coverage, download your copy of the 2014 StatFox Edge Football Preview. Up next is the AFC North, with the Cincinnati Bengals tabbed as the slight favorite to win the division.

BALTIMORE RAVENS


2013 Statistics:
SU Record: 8-8
ATS Record: 7-8-1
Over/Under: 7-9
Points Scored: 20.0 PPG (25th in NFL)
Points Allowed: 22.0 PPG (12th in NFL)

2014 Odds:
(For the latest Odds, connect to Sportsbook.com)
Odds to Win AFC North: 14/5
Odds to Win AFC Championship: 20/1
Odds to Win Super Bowl XLIX: 40/1
Regular Season Wins Over/Under: 8.5

2014 Preview:
Offense:
This is a zone-blocking running game that never got going a year ago. Part of it was sluggish running from Ray Rice, but a lot of it was simply poor blocking up front from an offensive line that was working in new faces. Rice may face a suspension of three games or longer stemming from an assault charge from earlier this year, but he figures to take the bulk of the carries once he’s back, as Bernard Pierce didn’t fare much better a year ago. Look for more outside stretch plays for Rice, who dropped weight during the offseason to prepare for the new offense. Justin Forsett, who played for new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak in Houston, could end up pushing Pierce for the No. 2 role. Kubiak always stayed very run-heavy in the red zone with Arian Foster carrying the load for the Texans—Rice should get a chance to take on that role early in the year.

The passing game will likely have a different look under Kubiak, a West Coast disciple. Expect more hard play-action with quarterback Joe Flacco reversing field and looking to take deep shots. Flacco will be asked to move much more than he had in the past. Torrey Smith and Steve Smith will both see time at Z-receiver, a position that’s a moveable chess piece and the primary cog in the passing game. Kubiak uses multiple formations in the passing game, but he figures to use two tight ends often, with Dennis Pitta working crossing routes. The running backs will also be used frequently in the screen game.

Defense:
After a complete overhaul of defensive personnel entering 2013, the Ravens defense stayed virtually intact in 2014 while adding FS Darian Stewart and rookies ILB C.J. Mosley and DT Timmy Jernigan. OLB Terrell Suggs (1 sack in final 8 games) must get more pressure to increase his team’s turnovers (only six multi-TO games last year).

Key Offseason Moves:
ADDITIONS
RB Justin Forsett (Jaguars)
WR Steve Smith (Panthers)
TE Owen Daniels (Texans)
C Jeremy Zuttah (Buccaneers)
LB Austin Spitler (Dolphins)
CB Dominique Franks (Falcons)
CB Aaron Ross (Giants)
SS Darian Stewart (Rams)
S Will Hill (Giants)

SUBTRACTIONS
FB Vonta Leach (released)
WR Tandon Doss (Jaguars)
TE Ed Dickson (Panthers)
TE Dallas Clark (retired)
OT Michael Oher (Titans)
DT Arthur Jones (Colts)
ILB Jameel McClain (Giants)
LB Rolando McClain (Cowboys)
CB Corey Graham (Bills)
SS James Ihedigbo (Lions)

StatFox Take: Despite losing a gaggle of key players after their Super Bowl title, the Ravens were still able to grind out eight wins, with four losses coming by a field goal or less. This should be an improved team in 2014, especially in the passing game with veteran receivers WR Steve Smith and TE Owen Daniels. RB Ray Rice is due for a bounce-back year, and so is the defense that was average or better in all meaningful categories last year. As long as the Ravens can be around .500 going into their Week 11 Bye, they will be in great shape to win the division, as they could be favored in each of their final five contests.
Prediction: OVER 8.5 wins (-110)

CINCINNATI BENGALS


2013 Statistics:
SU Record: 11-5
ATS Record: 10-5-1
Over/Under: 10-5-1
Points Scored: 26.9 PPG (T-6th in NFL)
Points Allowed: 19.1 PPG (T-5th in NFL)

2014 Odds:
(For the latest Odds, connect to Sportsbook.com)
Odds to Win AFC North: 19/10
Odds to Win AFC Championship: 14/1
Odds to Win Super Bowl XLIX: 35/1
Regular Season Wins Over/Under: 9

2014 Preview:
Offense:
New offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has always leaned heavily on the power running game, and that figures to be the game plan this year. Jackson utilizes a lot of gap blocking, which should allow feature back Giovani Bernard to use his creativity as a runner. Rookie Jeremy Hill will likely push BenJarvus Green-Ellis down the depth chart. Jackson has historically kept the ground game going down near the goal line, and it appears as if Hill will be his top goal-line option. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Bernard and Green-Ellis got some action down there too. Jackson also uses a lot of creative, gadget plays to attack the perimeter, and Bernard should be able to take advantage.

Jackson has pledged support for the often-overwhelmed Andy Dalton, but this passing game is going to be scaled back. The potentially improved running game should open things up for downfield throws, and Dalton’s willingness to throw deep into traffic is essentially his only strength. A.J. Green will continue to do most of his work downfield on the perimeter, with Marvin Jones playing an expanded and similar role on the other side of the field. They’ll go two tight ends often, with Tyler Eifert seen as a bigger catch-and-run threat than Jermaine Gresham, and Bernard being used frequently in the screen game. Green and Jones will be the primary red-zone targets when they throw, as both have the athleticism to win the jump ball.

Defense:
The Bengals lost defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to Minnesota, but new DC Paul Guenther, promoted from linebackers coach, won’t change much from an attacking unit that placed among the top-five defenses in points, yards and turnovers in 2013. FS Danieal Manning and rookie CB Darqueze Dennard are nice additions.

Key Offseason Moves:
ADDITIONS
QB Jason Campbell (Browns)
OT Will Svitek (Patriots)
OT Marshall Newhouse (Packers)
CB R.J. Stanford (Dolphins)
FS Danieal Manning (Texans)

SUBTRACTIONS
QB Josh Johnson (49ers)
WR Andrew Hawkins (Browns)
OT Anthony Collins (Buccaneers)
DE Michael Johnson (Buccaneers)
OLB James Harrison (released)
CB Brandon Ghee (Chargers)
SS Chris Crocker (Vikings)

StatFox Take: The Bengals have won at least nine games in three straight seasons with Andy Dalton under center, but they will be hard-pressed to reach double-digit wins in 2014. The road schedule is brutal with non-divisional trips to New England, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Houston and Tampa Bay. Getting Atlanta, Carolina and Denver at home won't be easy either. With such a wide-open division, the smart bet is to take the nearly even money for a .500 season or worse in Cincinnati.
Prediction: UNDER 9 wins (-110)

Here is the BetDSI Sportsbook breakdown of odds for the first week of the NFL preseason:

CLEVELAND BROWNS


2013 Statistics:
SU Record: 4-12
ATS Record: 6-10
Over/Under: 8-8
Points Scored: 19.3 PPG (27th in NFL)
Points Allowed: 25.4 PPG (23rd in NFL)

2014 Odds:
(For the latest Odds, connect to Sportsbook.com)
Odds to Win AFC North: 7/1
Odds to Win AFC Championship: 30/1
Odds to Win Super Bowl XLIX: 75/1
Regular Season Wins Over/Under: 6.5

2014 Preview:
Offense:
New head coach Mike Pettine brought in Kyle Shanahan to be his offensive coordinator. Pettine also hired former Ravens O-Line coach Andy Moeller to help operate a running game that’s expected to be built around a zone-blocking scheme. Ben Tate fits the bill as a one-cut back who was used in a similar scheme in Houston. Tate is injury-prone, but he’ll likely be given as much as he can handle. Rookies Terrence West and Isaiah Crowell will battle in the preseason for the role of No. 2 RB on early downs while Chris Ogbonnaya is expected to begin the year as the main back on obvious passing downs. Shanahan oversaw some zone-read option stuff in Washington. It could be sprinkled in with Johnny Manziel, but considering Robert Griffin III’s injuries, they figure to go light.

Shanahan ran a fairly traditional West Coast passing game and should do so with Manziel under center. Miles Austin seems to have a good a chance as any of Cleveland’s receivers to fill in for Josh Gordon as Manziel’s top downfield target. If Austin does win the role, he would likely line up at split end and be used on a lot of hard play-action. They’ll likely use three-wide often, utilizing Andrew Hawkins out of the slot as a catch-and-run and either Nate Burleson or Earl Bennett as the No. 3 WR. TE Jordan Cameron should be neck-and-neck with Hawkins for the most receptions, working more crossing routes this year, and he’ll be the clear-cut top receiving option in the red zone.

Defense:
The Browns have a solid defense that added heady veteran starters SS Donte Whitner and ILB Karlos Dansby this offseason. But the anemic offense will likely put them in many short fields again, and new defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil will have to figure why the team was tied for 29th in red-zone defense last season.

Key Offseason Moves:
ADDITIONS
QB Tyler Thigpen (DNP in 2013)
RB Ben Tate (Texans)
WR Andrew Hawkins (Bengals)
WR Miles Austin (Cowboys)
WR Nate Burleson (Lions)
WR Marlon Moore (Dolphins)
TE Jim Dray (Cardinals)
OT Michael Bowie (Seahawks)
G/T Paul McQuistan (Seahawks)
DE/OLB Edgar Jones (Cowboys)
ILB Karlos Dansby (Cardinals)
LB Zac Diles (Titans)
OLB Jamaal Westerman (Steelers)
CB Isaiah Trufant (Jets)
SS Donte Whitner (49ers)
S Jim Leonhard (Bills)

SUBTRACTIONS
QB Brandon Weeden (Cowboys)
QB Jason Campbell (Bengals)
WR Greg Little (Raiders)
WR Davone Bess (released)
G/T Oniel Cousins (Buccaneers)
G Shawn Lauvao (Redskins)
ILB D’Qwell Jackson (Colts)
OLB Quentin Groves (Texans)
SS T.J. Ward (Broncos)

StatFox Take: The Browns have not surpassed five wins in six straight seasons, going 27-69 (.281) over this span of futility. Not having suspended star WR Josh Gordon will certainly hurt this offense, and the defense will have a difficult time trying to keep teams like New Orleans, Houston, Atlanta, Indianapolis and Carolina out of the end zone. The club has the ability to go on a nice run coming out of the bye week with a soft five-game schedule versus Tennessee, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, Oakland and Tampa Bay, but they may not be able to secure another win after that. Take the plus-money and expect another 10-loss season for this dreadful franchise.
Prediction: UNDER 6.5 wins (+120)

PITTSBURGH STEELERS


2013 Statistics:
SU Record: 8-8
ATS Record: 9-7
Over/Under: 8-8
Points Scored: 23.7 PPG (T-16th in NFL)
Points Allowed: 23.1 PPG (14th in NFL)

2014 Odds:
(For the latest Odds, connect to Sportsbook.com)
Odds to Win AFC North: 21/10
Odds to Win AFC Championship: 13/1
Odds to Win Super Bowl XLIX: 22/1
Regular Season Wins Over/Under: 8.5

2014 Preview:
Offense:
The Steelers tried to implement a zone-blocking scheme last season under offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr., but they never completely implemented it after center Maurkice Pouncey’s season-ending knee injury in Week 1. Ex-Titans head coach Mike Munchak was brought in to finish the job. Le’Veon Bell will be a three-down workhorse in the one-cut system, one that will likely utilize a lot of inside zone plays. LeGarrette Blount will fit the system as a one-cut power runner, though he won’t be an option to relieve Bell on passing downs. Rookie Dri Archer will get some grabs on passing downs.

Through his first two seasons with the Steelers, offensive coordinator Todd Haley has emphasized the importance of getting the ball out of Ben Roethlisberger’s hands quickly in order to limit the hits he absorbs. They utilize relatively shorter timing routes to set up catch-and-run situations. Antonio Brown is used as a moving chess piece and will continue to be heavily featured. Markus Wheaton gives them a field stretching presence, while tight end Heath Miller and veteran slot man Lance Moore—they use three receivers often—will be traditional possession receivers. Haley continues to go to the air inside the 10 often, though Pittsburgh lost its top two red-zone threats (Jerricho Cotchery and Emmanuel Sanders). Look for Miller to see an expanded red-zone role, with Darrius Heyward-Bey possibly working his way into the mix.

Defense:
The Steelers defense took a step back in 2013, placing tied for 27th in turnovers and tied for 25th in sacks. They helped themselves in the draft with OLB Ryan Shazier and DE Stephon Tuitt, and also signed FS Mike Mitchell, but Dick LeBeau’s unit is still lacking playmakers and run-stoppers to return to their Steel Curtain glory days.

Key Offseason Moves:
ADDITIONS
RB LeGarrette Blount (Patriots)
WR Lance Moore (Saints)
WR Darrius Heyward-Bey (Colts)
DE/NT Cam Thomas (Chargers)
ILB Arthur Moats (Bills)
CB Brice McCain (Texans)
FS Mike Mitchell (Panthers)
P Adam Podlesh (Bears)

SUBTRACTIONS
RB Jonathan Dwyer (Cardinals)
WR Emmanuel Sanders (Broncos)
WR Jerricho Cotchery (Panthers)
TE David Johnson (Chargers)
C Fernando Velasco (Panthers)
OT Levi Brown (released)
G Eric Olsen (Titans)
DE Ziggy Hood (Jaguars)
DE Al Woods (Titans)
ILB Larry Foote (Cardinals)
OLB LaMarr Woodley (Raiders)
OLB Jamaal Westerman (Browns)
CB Curtis Brown (released)
FS Ryan Clark (Redskins)

StatFox Take: The Steelers had a rough 2-6 start to the 2013 season, but their 6-2 finish shows that they are headed in the right direction. With no clear powerhouse team in their division, plus some winnable non-AFC North road games (Jacksonville, New York Jets, Tennessee), if this club can take care of business at home and stay healthy, nine wins shouldn't be too difficult to attain. Despite the steep price, take the Over here.
Prediction: OVER 8.5 wins (-155)

Here is the BetDSI Sportsbook 2014 season preview for the Steelers:

All NFL Previews

AFC East
AFC North
AFC South - Tuesday, August 12
AFC West - Thursday, August 14
NFC East - Tuesday, August 19
NFC North - Thursday, August 21
NFC South - Tuesday, August 26
NFC West - Thursday, August 28

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