Steelers Fever – Previewing The 2007 Steelers – Part Two

Previewing The 2007 Steelers – Part Two

Steelers Fever Exclusive Editorial

Friday, September 07, 2007
By Eddie Griffin
Steelers Fever Columnist

The Steelers have as much talent as anyone else, but how do they stack up in the AFC North, and in the AFC, both of which boast a wealth of talent?

Sizing Up the Rest of the AFC North

Bengals: I could make a joke about Cincinnati players getting arrested, but I feel a little handcuffed by indecision right now.

I just couldn’t help myself, I just couldn’t.

Anyway, the Bengals have the offense to take them a long way. Carson Palmer has thrown 60 touchdowns in the last two seasons, and Rudi Johnson has three straight seasons with 1300-plus yards and 12 touchdowns. And, of course, there’s Mr. Ocho Cinco, who’s got T.J. Who’s Your Mama lining up across from him.

But the Bengals need some defense if they want to be a contender. In seven of eight losses in 2006, Cincinnati gave up 23 or more points, and ranked 31st in yards allowed. To make up for Odell Thurman’s continued absence, Cincy signed former Raven Ed Hartwell, who was a 100-tackle guy before injury issues in the last two seasons, and Lamar Marshall, who’s had back-to-back 100-plus tackle seasons. And to shore up the secondary, the Bengals drafted Michigan corner Leon Hall in the first round.

Browns: How long will it be before Brady Quinn is starting? Will the addition of Jamal Lewis help bring a few more wins (and keep Romeo Crennel’s job)? Or will the Browns end up finishing with double-digit losses for the eighth time in ten seasons and gift wrap a top-five pick for the Cowboys?

The Browns were competitive last season, losing six games by eight points or less, but in the end, they were the same old Browns, finishing at 4-12.

Will they be the same old Browns again? The addition of Joe Thomas (third overall pick) and Eric Steinbach to the offensive line is a definite step up, and if Lewis can return to his pre-2005 form (he’s averaged 3.5 yards per carry in the last two seasons), the offense will look a lot less hapless.

If Charlie Frye struggles early, Crennel needs to have a quick hook, because he has no room for (more) error. Quinn had an impressive preseason, and is likely the long-term solution under center, but he’s up against history and arguably the toughest division in the league.

Ravens: An upgrade at the running game may be the missing link for the Ravens.

Steve McNair’s resurgence in Baltimore, and the NFL’s No. 1 ranked defense led the Ravens to a 13-3 record and a runaway AFC North title last season.

But with the addition of Willis McGahee to replace Jamal Lewis in the backfield may make them even better in 2007. McGahee’s numbers weren’t what they could have been in Buffalo, but he will be running behind an offensive line that added guard Ben Grubbs (first-round pick) and Jared Gaither (a 6’9, 330-pound behemoth), who would have been a first-round pick in 2008, had he not had academic problems at Maryland.

And there aren’t any question marks about the defense, which should be as strong as ever.

But will Brian Billick’s squad be able to break through in such a crowded AFC? That’s the big question. McNair and McGahee have both had health problems throughout their careers, so the durability of their two offensive stars, and of their entire team (which enters the season with a couple of key injury issues), will go a long way in determining how far the Ravens go in 2007.

Where Do the Steelers Fit In?

They can match the Bengals’ offense score for score, but their strength in the defense is where the Steelers have an edge.

That leaves only the Ravens standing in the Steelers’ way of a division title. The Ravens handily won both of the matchups last season (27-0 at home and 31-7 at Heinz Field), which were also Pittsburgh’s only two losses in the second half of the season.

Baltimore faces a tough schedule, with games at San Diego, Seattle, and San Francisco, and home games against New England, Indianapolis, and the Jets. Pittsburgh has Seattle, San Francisco, and Jacksonville at home, while having to go on the road to New England, New York, and Denver.

A 10-6 or 11-5 finish may be the mark needed to win the division and it may well come down to the final day of the season, when the Ravens and Steelers tangle in Baltimore.

It’d be nice to think that the Steelers could find a way past the Ravens to win the division, because there are a lot of perks that come with winning your division, but they should at least be a playoff team. The Broncos, Bengals, Jets, and potentially the Chiefs will likely be the main contenders for the wild card spots, so if it comes down to the wild card, it’ll be as tight as it usually is.

In the end, it’s going to come down to whether or not Pittsburgh can play consistent football. With a tough schedule, there’s no room for having too many bad weeks.

Double-digit wins and a berth in the postseason aren’t unreasonable or unreachable goals for Mike Tomlin’s first season in Pittsburgh. If the Steelers can overcome themselves and the rugged AFC, the sky’s the limit.

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