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49ers opponents preview: Ravens primed to regain AFC North supremacy

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In part two of the San Francisco 49ers 2015 opponent preview, we check in on the AFC North, which looks primed for another shake-up in the coming season. Earlier this week we broke down the 49ers NFC West opponents.

As we enter the midpoint of the preseason, it's time to take the temperature of the San Francisco 49ers' 2015 opponents to see where they stand as we prepare to enter the regular season. Over the rest of the week, I'll providing a big-picture snapshot of each of the 13 teams on San Francisco's schedule, looking at their underlying performance from 2014, the major happenings from this offseason, and the biggest questions they'll be facing in the coming season.

On Wednesday, we broke down the 49ers opponents in the NFC West. Today, we move on to the AFC North.

Cleveland Browns

You could actually detect a hint of optimism in the Factory of Sadness last season. Cleveland improved by three games to go 7–9 in their first season under new head coach Mike Pettine, topping five victories for the first time since 2007. Surprisingly, the Browns were still in the playoff hunt when Thanksgiving rolled around, starting the year 7–4 before stumbling to the finish line with five straight losses to close the year.

Cleveland’s ascendance to mediocrity came on the shoulders of a defense that leapt 13 spots in Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings, tied for the second-largest improvement in football with Philadelphia. Spearheading that improvement was a pass defense that finished as the second-best in football (no, that’s not a typo). Though the Browns swapped out Buster Skrine for Tramon Williams — arguably an upgrade despite a six year bump in age — this offseason, the rest of the secondary will return intact for 2015.

General manager Ray Farmer made the rest of his changes to Cleveland’s defensive personnel in attempt to improve the NFL’s second-worst run defense from last season. Veteran defensive end Randy Starks was added via free agency, and Farmer used his first selection in the 2015 draft to take Washington nose tackle Danny Shelton, who profiles as a space-eating run stopper in the middle of Cleveland’s 3–4 defense. Those two moves alone should make the Browns more stout against the run, and if the pass defense holds up, could be enough to push the unit into the top 10 in 2015.

For all of the optimism a potential top–10 defense can bring, an offense with little hope throws it all on the ground. Outside of a Joe Thomas-led offensive line that should continue to be the unit’s strength in 2015, there’s little to be excited about on this side of the ball. Middling veteran receivers Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline were added to a receiving corps that’s likely to be without Josh Gordon, well, probably forever. University of Miami running back Duke Johnson was selected in the third round of this year’s draft and has been drawing rave reviews during the preseason. There’s little ahead of him on the depth chart, and there’s little reason for the Browns to not roll the dice with the explosive rookie ballcarrier.

All that might not sound so bad, but things grind to a halt when you move to the quarterback position. For some reason the Browns failed to learn from the mistakes of the Bucs, and saw fit to get into a bidding war with the Bills over Josh McCown, which they won, because apparently they’ve never watched Josh McCown play football. McCown was one of the worst quarterbacks in football last season by any measure, even the good ol’ eye test, and he’ll be without the luxury of having Kyle Shanahan as his offensive coordinator, who worked magic to get even below-average play out of Brian Hoyer last year. On the plus side, McCown did provide us with one of the most hilarious plays of 2014:

And then there’s Johnny Manziel. JFF’s off-field escapades have been well documented and won’t be rehashed here, but he had actually started to get some positive buzz going this offseason for his work on the field. New offensive coordinator John DeFilippo called him a "new man" earlier this week, and Manziel even made this holy-shit throw in Cleveland’s second preseason game against the Bills:

Of course, there was no way that optimism was going to last. Not only has the organization remained steadfast in their support of McCown as the team’s starter, because Cleveland, but Manziel has been shut down for the remainder of the preseason, effectively ending any outside chance he had at becoming the Browns’ season-opening signal caller. Manziel might very well have bombed had he been given the opportunity, but at least there’s some element of unknown by rolling the dice with a young, unproven prospect. There will be no such surprise with McCown. We know exactly what he is — a below-replacement level passer that will drag any hope the Browns had at improving on their 7–9 performance from a year ago down to the depths with him.

Baltimore Ravens

In a post-Super Bowl victory haze, the Ravens fell to 8–8 and missed the playoffs for the first time since the final season Brian Billick was in town back in 2007. But it didn’t take long for general manager Ozzie Newsome and head coach John Harbaugh to right the ship and get Baltimore back on track. A year ago, the Ravens improved to 10–6, won a playoff game against the arch-rival Steelers, and had a 90 percent win probability in the second half of the AFC Championship Game before allowing the Patriots to put up 21 points in as many minutes of game time to cut Baltimore’s Super Bowl run short. And as good of a season as the Ravens had, you can make the argument they underperformed and could be even better in 2015.

Though the Ravens finished in third place in their own division, behind the Steelers and Bengals, their performance on a play-by-play basis, as measured by Football Outsiders’ DVOA, indicated they were the fifth-best team in football, up a league-high 18 spots from the previous campaign. Baltimore’s point differential (+107) was well ahead of their AFC North comrades, and thanks to an unlucky 2–4 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, the Ravens underperformed their Pythagorean expectation by nearly a full game, which has historically been a positive indicator for improvement in the following campaign.

Baltimore should also benefit from better health at a crucial position. They had above-average health across the entire roster in 2014, but the Ravens’ depth chart at cornerback looked as if a tornado had run through it by the time that championship game against New England rolled around. Top cover-man Jimmy Smith played in just six games before landing on IR with a Lisfranc injury. Lardarius Webb missed a couple games with a back injury to begin the season and seemed hampered by that and various other ailments for the rest of the year. Anonymous depth players such as Asa Jackson (13 games missed), Tramain Jacobs (6), and Danny Gorrer (5) all missed significant chunks of time and eventually finished out the year on IR. The players brought in to bulk up the position don’t inspire much confidence, but it’s hard to imagine they’ll find themselves as thin at cornerback in 2015.

Qualitatively, there are some mildly concerning personnel changes Baltimore suffered on both sides of the ball this offseason. Joe Flacco’s receiving targets have undergone a bit of a makeover. Gone are Torrey Smith and Owen Daniels, the team’s second- and third-most targeted options, respectively. Asked to pick up most of the slack for those departures will be Baltimore’s top two draft picks in 2015.

First-round pick Breshad Perriman averaged over 20 yards per reception at UCF, and will take over for Torrey as the team’s primary deep threat. Unfortunately for Ravens fans, Perriman might not be ready to go for the season opener, as a sprained PCL has kept him out of training camp and preseason work. If he’s unable to go right away, things get dicey in a hurry behind Steve Smith, who has concerns of his own as he enters his age–36 season. Second-rounder Maxx Williams (yes, there are really two Xs) was the consensus best tight end in this year’s class, and the Ravens will need him to live up to the billing, as the departure of Daniels and career-threatening injuries to Dennis Pitta has left the position perilously thin.

On the other side of the ball, Haloti Ngata and Pernell McPhee are the big-name departures. But in typical Ozzie Newsome-fashion, the Ravens defense should be equipped to move forward with minimal fall off from those losses. Timmy Jernigan and third-round pick Carl Davis are both more penetrating pass-rusher types than space-eating run defenders such as Ngata, but they give Baltimore talented, young defensive lineman to plug in right away. McPhee provided a lot of versatility to Baltimore’s front and took full advantage of the attention provided to Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil on the edge, but Suggs and Dumervil are still around to head the pass rush, and fourth-rounder Za’Darius Smith should help account for the production lost by McPhee.

If the Ravens hope to regain the AFC North crown, health at cornerback and offensive line — a unit that improved dramatically a year ago and wound up being one of the best groups in football — will be crucial. But they should also benefit from small steps back by the two teams that finished ahead of them in the standings last year…

Cincinnati Bengals

In a mirror image of their starting quarterback, the Bengals were exceedingly mediocre in 2014. Cincinnati finished with the 18th-ranked offense and 14th-ranked defense, according to DVOA, with some solid special teams play bumping them up to 12th overall. They even had average health, finishing 16th in adjusted games lost. Despite that mediocrity, the Bengals nearly stole the AFC North title for the second straight year and made it back to the playoffs just in time for another Wild Card exit. But there’s plenty of reason to believe Cincinnati was fortunate to even be in that situation to begin with.

If you haven’t caught on at this point, point differential is an important indicator for future performance and it doesn’t paint a pretty picture for the 2015 Bengals. Counting their tie as a half-win, Cincinnati exceeded their Pythagorean expectation by 1.9 games, second only to the Cardinals, who were covered in yesterday’s preview. Much like the Cardinals, the Bengals managed to play over their heads relative to their point differential thanks to their record in games decided by a touchdown or less, where they went 3–0–1 and were a shanked chip-shot field goal away from an unblemished record.

Compounding matters, the Bengals did very little to shore up weak spots on the roster this offseason, namely a pass rush that was the league’s worst a year ago. Cincinnati recorded a league-low 20 sacks in 2014, fewer than individual sack leaders Justin Houston (22 sacks) and J.J. Watt (20.5). The Bengals brought back defensive end Michael Johnson, who spent a year effectively vacationing in Tampa, but he’s unlikely to move the needle. Johnson has 7.5 sacks over the past two seasons, and his 11.5-sack breakout season in 2012 stands out as a massive outlier. Otherwise, the Bengals appear to be banking on improvement from their existing defenders, where they’re surely hoping Geno Atkins regains pre-ACL form as a dominant interior pass rusher rather than the 2014 version that looked like a shell of his former self.

Cincinnati could have opted for pass rushing help in a draft class that was loaded with them. However, they decided to use their top two draft choices on offensive tackles, a puzzling decision considering the players already on the roster. Andrew Whitworth is one of the best lineman in football on the left side, and Andre Smith has been competent at the other bookend. Both players are entering the final year of their contract, and the Bengals might have simply been getting ahead of the curve on securing their replacements, but it’s still curious to have first- and second-round picks who are expected to have little impact in year one on a roster that might be entering its final run with the current core.

Per Football Outsiders Almanac 2015, the Bengals have 13 key players in contract years including megastar wideout A.J. Green, starting cornerbacks Leon Hall and Adam Jones, and starting safety Reggie Nelson, in addition to the two aforementioned tackles. Some of those players, particularly Green, will likely be re-signed, but toss in Andy Dalton, who is on a Kaepernick-esque deal that allows Cincinnati to cut ties with the mercurial quarterback with little salary cap implications following 2015, and we could very well be looking at a much different Bengals team a year from now.

After four consecutive Wild Card defeats, the Bengals appear to have plateaued in their current construction. When healthy, they have a very balanced roster with talent at a number of positions. But barring a deep postseason run, it’s hard to envision them maintaining the status quo and going out of their way to keep the current core of the roster intact. More likely, a more difficult schedule (swapping out the South divisions for the Wests) and some unlucky bounces in close games lead to a disappointing season that marks the end of the Bengals as we know them.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Entering last season, the Steelers were coming off back-to-back playoff absences for the first time since Kordell Stewart was lining up under center at the turn of the century. Unlike those Stewart-led squads from the late 1990s, the 2014 Steelers managed to bounce back and prevent a third straight postseason no-show, improving to 11–5 and locking up a competitive AFC North title on the back of the league’s second-best offense.

Health proved to be the primary catalyst for a Steelers offense that jumped 10 spots in offensive DVOA. After having one of the league’s most injury-riddled offenses in both 2013 (28th in offensive AGL) and 2012 (31st), Pittsburgh struck the injury lottery and managed to field football’s healthiest offense in 2014. Ben Roethlisberger started all 16 games in consecutive seasons for the first time in his career. Roethlisberger’s top weapons, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, combined to miss just a single game (though Bell’s absence in Pittsburgh’s playoff contest with Baltimore contributed heavily to their demise), and even the offensive line lost the third-fewest games to injury in football.

While health on an individual level might be a skill, we know that injuries at the team level has little predictive value from one season to the next. Considering the Steelers’ track record in previous seasons, it’s incredibly unlikely their offense will be as healthy in 2015, something we’ve already begun to see unfold during the preseason. All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey is expected to miss half the season with a fractured ankle suffered during the team’s preseason match-up with the Packers. And though not due to injury, we know the Steelers will be without two of their top skill position players to begin the season. Bell is guaranteed to be out for more regular season games this year, as the All-World running back has been suspended for the first two games of 2015. Potentially joining him on the suspended list will be wideout Martavis Bryant, who is facing a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy.

Pittsburgh’s top-heavy roster on offense is ill-equipped to handle many more absences on that side of the ball. When everyone’s healthy, Roethlisberger, Bell, and Brown are all among the best players at their position. But things get perilously thin after those superstars at the top. Pittsburgh signed Michael Vick earlier this week to backup Roethlisberger, but he appears to be solely in "Keep Gettin’ Dem Checks" mode. The Steelers added Bell insurance with DeAngelo Williams as their sole free agent addition, but his long injury history fits right in with the rest of the Steelers offense and there’s nothing that would lead you to believe he can still be a quality back even when healthy. The wide receiver depth chart after Brown is filled with young players, but all have been inconsistent and lackluster to this point in their brief careers and Bryant is now facing a four-game suspension to begin the season for violating the league's substance abuse policy.

If any one of their top three go down on offense — or the offensive line takes too many more hits — the Steelers could be in serious trouble, because their defense is primed to be one of the worst in football again this year. After finishing with the league’s 30th-ranked defense a year ago, the Steelers have done little to provide optimism their fortunes will be any different in 2015. Longtime, but aging, Steelers’ defenders Troy Polamalu (retirement), Ike Taylor (retirement), and Brett Keisel (released) were all lost this offseason, as was team sack leader Jason Worilds (retirement). Only Worilds was an above average defender last year, but there’s little reason to think their replacements will be much better. The only new faces have come via the draft, where Pittsburgh selected pass-rusher Bud Dupree with their first-round pick, while also adding cornerbacks in the second and fourth rounds.

If you want to paint a best-case scenario for the 2015 Steelers, you could envision a season like the one Dallas had a year ago. If the offense can avoid any more significant injuries, and the defense surprises and moves back toward the middle of the pack, double-digit wins and another playoff berth could be in their future. But those are some big ifs. The numbers — Pittsburgh outperformed their Pythagorean expectation by 1.3 games, the fourth-largest gap in football and just two spots behind the Bengals — point to a step back, as do the more qualitative factors discussed above. And in one of the best divisions in football, plus more difficult schedule, that will likely be enough to drop a few games and swap places in the standings with their rivals in Baltimore.