Facing the league’s most daunting schedule in 2015, the schedule makers obviously did Pittsburgh no favors. Their first several games of the year will be a good measuring stick for the team as they look to embark on the defense of their 2014 AFC North title minus the presence of All-Pro running back, Le’Veon Bell. However, there exists another team in the division that boasts as impressive a runner as there is in the league, Bell included.
Despite only starting 8 of 16 games, Cincinnati Bengals’ rookie running back, Jeremy Hill ran for 1,124 yards and 9 scores, sporting a sterling 5.1 yards-per-carry average. The 6-foot-1, 238-pounder came on fire down the stretch, finishing the season with three straight 100+ yard rushing outings, including his 23 carry, 100 yard day versus Pittsburgh in week 17. And let’s not forget his backup, Giovani Bernard, who adds some lightning to Hill’s thunder, running for 680 yards and added 349 more through the air.
Speaking of through the air, Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green put up his fourth-straight 1,000 yard season despite playing in only 13 games. Couple him with up-and-coming Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones, who missed all of last season, and the team has the makings for a very impressive offense. They will certainly need it, as they have the second-ranked schedule in terms of toughness in the league. In short, the schedule makers weren’t very kind to the AFC North this season.
On defense, the team was missing their emotional leader in middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict for most of the year. He should be healthy enough for a bounce back season, but the team also added TCU’s standout Paul Dawson in the third round of this draft. His draft slick slid due to a slow 40 time, but put the tape on and you see a really nice football player who shows great instincts. The team’s standout defensive tackle, Geno Atkins, will also be one more year removed from his torn anterior cruciate ligament during the 2013 campaign.
Cincinnati actually filed a motion asking the league to play consecutive home games on the West Coast, much like the Steelers did. This was in large part to away games in Oakland, San Francisco and Denver. Their final four games to end 2015 is a murderer’s row, hosting Pittsburgh, followed by away games on back-to-back weekends before ending in week 17 hosting the Ravens at home.
After placing second in a division that sent three teams to the postseason last year, it’s very likely the team only sends one to the postseason dance next season. Depending on how improved the Pittsburgh defense is will also be a good barometer of this, as well as how the team fares early on while Bell serves his suspension. This team has major firepower, but also it’s important to note they navigated 2014 relatively unscathed when it comes to the injury bug. This will be very key in the upcoming season, especially considering the challengers awaiting them.
The AFC North is often considered the top-to-bottom best division in football, and this year will be a great sign of who the contenders and pretenders are. While Pittsburgh is the defending champion for a reason, parity exists in the league, often sending division winners one year tumbling to the basement the very next. Pittsburgh is far too talented, especially offensively, to foresee such a fall, but it’s important to be realistic too and realize how talented the Bengals are as well, aside from questionable quarterback play from Andy Dalton.
They are a dangerous team, and after sifting through the rubble next year, if it’s not Pittsburgh standing when the smoke clears, don’t be surprised if it’s Cincinnati. Obviously I hope that’s not the case, but again, it’s realistic to look at all the possibilities.