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ESPN Analysts: Steelers To Finish 3rd In Division
The AFC North is usually considered a two-way race.
It could wind up that way again this year, but ESPN analysts predict the Pittsburgh Steelers will not be one of the top two contenders. Instead, they see the Cincinnati Bengals and Ravens dueling for the division crown.
ESPN analysts Herm Edwards, Bill Polian and Marcellus Wiley all believe the Steelers will finish third.
Polian, the former Colts vice chairman and Bills general manager, was the only person of the trio to predict the Bengals would finish as the division champs, but he also predicted the Ravens would still make it to the Super Bowl via a wild-card playoff berth.
Finishing just one play away from the Super Bowl last year and retaining many of their key players, the Ravens seem to be a logical pick. Key offseason moves may lift the Bengals while pushing the Steelers down in the standings.
Quarterback Andy Dalton and receiver A.J. Green had spectacular rookie seasons and are expected to only get better with a year under their belt. With two first-round draft picks last month, Cincinnati bolstered their defensive backfield and offensive line with Alabama’s Dre Kirkpatrick and Wisconsin guard Kevin Zeitler. The Bengals’ prize of free agency was running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The Bengals have won the division twice since 2002.
“I believe that the Bengals, because they’ve had such a great offseason, will win the division. I think the Ravens will be a close second and [a force]to be reckoned with in the playoffs,” Polian said. “I think the Steelers – too much change there.”
The Steelers’ former offensive coordinator of five years, Bruce Arians, has been replaced by Todd Haley, who is known for an in-your-face style and his offensive philosophy in Pittsburgh is still unclear. The Steelers offensive line is under construction, the health of nose tackle Casey Hampton is up in the air and the team’s ability to replace inside linebacker James Farrior will be crucial.
“It sounds like heresy to say the Steelers are third in their division,” Wiley said, even though he stuck by his prediction. The Steelers have finished in third place three times since the inception of the AFC North in 2002.
Not only will Flacco’s attendance help the development of, and build chemistry with, new players on the offensive line and receiving corps, he is sending a good message to the team, says CSNBaltimore.com’s Jeff Seidel.
“It also sends a message to the rest of the team. Yes, Flacco’s trying for the new contract, but he still cares enough about the team to come in spring drills and help the offense,” Seidel wrote. “Others in the NFL would sit and complain loudly about what a rotten deal they’ve got, and how the team’s not being fair to them.”
Not everyone is ready to give Flacco too much credit yet.
ESPN blogger Jamison Hensley says the real test will come after his contract expires.
“The real test of Flacco’s “love” for the game would come next offseason if he doesn’t have a new deal and the Ravens decide to put the franchise tag on him,” Hensley wrote. “I still wouldn’t be surprised if Flacco chose to miss some practices in early June this year. His first child is expected to be born around that time.”
Rule Change Won’t Affect Suggs
Some have speculated that the rule change, passed by NFL owners yesterday, to allow one marquee player on injured reserve to return to game action after the eighth game would affect injured outside linebacker Terrell Suggs.
But it appears it won’t because he sustained his injury prior to the start of the season.
“Since Suggs will be sidelined heading into training camp, it’s most likely that he will start the season on the physically-unable-to-perform (PUP) list, which would allow him to return to the field as early as Week 7. That still gives the Ravens roster flexibility, as any player on the PUP list does not count toward the 53-man roster.”
Dickson, Pitta Among Top 5 AFC North TEs
Third-year tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta are the second- and fourth-best tight ends in the AFC North, says Hensley.
The AFC North blogger is ranking the top players at each position this week, and the Ravens are the only team to have two players break the Top 5 in the tight ends category.
The Top 5 tight ends in descending order are: Jermaine Gresham (Bengals), Dickson, Heath Miller (Steelers), Pitta and Evan Moore (Browns).
“He’s got everything you want in a tight end: size, speed and athleticism,” Hensley wrote of Dickson. “The next step is his consistency. He caught fewer than three passes in half of his games last season.
“[Pitta] quietly made a big impact for the Ravens, ranking second on the team with 17 catches on third down last season. The Ravens don’t have a tight end combination like the Patriots, but Dickson-Pitta is a solid one.”
C_33_T [rookie safety Chris Thompson]: Just finish my 1st OTA and damn the vets be going fast! [Twitter]