Analysis  

 

AFC North holes to fill: Run-game issues for Steelers, Bengals

David Richard/US Presswire
Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL last season and could miss the beginning of 2012, as well.

With the 2012 NFL Draft and the bulk of free agency in the rearview mirror, NFL.com analyst Elliot Harrison is examining each team's offseason activity and identifying remaining holes to fill.

Baltimore Ravens

Draft Grades & Team Holes
NFL.com analysts Bucky Brooks and Chad Reuter graded the draft classes for each team from the 2012 NFL Draft, and analyst Elliot Harrison addressed what holes remain.

NFC East: 2012 Draft Grades | Remaining Holes
AFC East: 2012 Draft Grades | Remaining Holes
NFC North: 2012 Draft Grades | Remaining Holes
AFC North: 2012 Draft Grades | Remaining Holes
NFC South: 2012 Draft Grades | Remaining Holes
AFC South: 2012 Draft Grades | Remaining Holes
NFC West: 2012 Draft Grades | Remaining Holes
AFC West: 2012 Draft Grades | Remaining Holes

Free agency: The Ravens lost Ben Grubbs and weren't the most active shoppers in the free-agent marketplace. (Unless you consider Sean Considine and Corey Graham to be prime-time acquisitions.)

Draft: While Ravens fans were disappointed the club traded out of the first round, coach John Harbaugh got a heckuva bargain in DE/LB Courtney Upshaw in the Round 2. Hopefully he'll make up for the Sergio Kindle debacle. Later in the same round, GM Ozzie Newsome acquired G Kelechi Osemele, and then grabbed Gino Gradkowski in the Round 4 to further bolster that position group, a sudden weakness with Grubbs' departure.

Holes to fill: Tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta need to step it up this season and make more clutch plays -- particularly Dickson. The Ravens did the right thing in getting Ray Rice a nice complement in third-round pick Bernard Pierce, but the passing game will only be so-so until Torrey Smith develops into a more consistent player and the tight ends are capable of making, dare we say, Todd Heap-esque catches over the middle. With former defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano gone, new guy Dean Pees has to hope Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed can bring it another season. Upshaw is definitely Suggs' insurance, so to speak, but the issue is that Lewis and Reed have more wear and tear. If both go down, it could be a deal-breaker for Baltimore in the AFC North. Hopefully mid-rounder Christian Thompson from South Carolina State can open some eyes should Reed get sidelined.

Cincinnati Bengals

Free agency: The Bengals added some bodies to the offense, signing Travelle Wharton and running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The latter should see at least 250 touches this season. Defensively, former top-10 picks Jamaal Anderson, Derrick Harvey and Terence Newman join Mike Zimmer's unit. Re-signing Reggie Nelson was a necessary evil.

Draft: The 2012 draft might have retooled this club for the next five years. CB Dre Kirkpatrick, OG Kevin Zeitler, DT Devon Still, DT Brandon Thompson and WR Mohamed Sanu should all be in the mix right away. Each of those players could feasibly stake his claim to being a top-50 player in the 2012 draft class, and the Bengals got them all.

Holes to fill: Green-Ellis could've used a complementary back. Bernard Scott is just a guy, while taking Dan Herron in the sixth wasn't the answer here. Considering Andy Dalton is still such a young player, giving him a running game -- the way the Steelers did with Ben Roethlisberger and the Ravens did with Joe Flacco in their early years -- would be smart. Defensively, Cincinnati still could use one guy that teams have to prepare for in their pass-protection schemes. Right now it's a pass rush by committee. Zimmer's plan, and rightly so, attempts to create pressure by rotating fresh legs through the lineup. Still, having one edge guy who commands double-teams would make this club a real contender, as opposed to a wild-card team.

Cleveland Browns

Free agency: The most notable offseason move for Cleveland was signing Frostee Rucker away from Cincinnati. He should start immediately at defensive end. Juqua Parker, formerly of the Eagles, was added to the defensive line rotation, as well.

Draft: Cleveland made major headlines in the draft, trading up to select RB Trent Richardson and getting possible a quarterback of the future (or now, considering his advanced age) in Brandon Weeden. The Browns spent five picks on defense, but the key selection might be second-rounder Mitchell Schwartz, who should be penciled in at right tackle immediately.

Holes to fill: While the line and backfield situation have been solidified, how can the Browns evaluate Colt McCoy properly without providing any weapons in the passing game? Cleveland failed to land a wideout in either free agency or the draft, leaving the third-year quarterback with Greg Little and a bunch of dudes from Devry. Good luck, Weeden. On defense, much like the Bengals, the Browns lack a big-time pass rusher to make opposing offensive coordinators adjust. Moreover, while the linebackers were decent in 2011, they weren't always stout versus the run, where they should be making the majority of their big plays.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Free agency: The Rooney family is rarely a major player in the free-agent market, and 2012 was no exception. The Steelers did go out and get tight end Leonard Pope to give them flexibility in both the ground and passing games. Meanwhile, Mike Wallace still hasn't signed his restricted free agent tender.

Draft: Pittsburgh might have secured the best value in the first round by taking Stanford guard David DeCastro at 24th overall. The Steelers snatched up another first-round talent in the second round, tackle Mike Adams, further fortifying the offensive line. Third-round pick Sean Spence can step in if Larry Foote falters or James Harrison succumbs to age. DT Alameda Ta'amu was thought to be a second-round talent that the Steelers stole in the fourth.

Holes to fill: For a 12-4 club, Pittsburgh still has some holes. Running back is one of 'em. A big one. Rashard Mendenhall is hurt and dances far too much for Steelers fans. Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, Baron Batch ... you're up. Question is, are any capable of providing Mendenhall's big-play ability while being more north and south? On Dick LeBeau's defense, two holes remain: A) Is Curtis Brown, 23, ready at right corner; and B) Is the age on the defensive line going to be a severe problem? Brett Keisel and Casey Hampton are getting up there. The Steelers are hoping 2011 first-round pick Cam Heyward, like Brown, can step up this year. That would allow Ziggy Hood to move inside more often to keep a more effective line rotation.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @Harrison_NFL

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