The AFC North division winner will most likely end with an exciting finish between the favorites--Baltimore and Pittsburgh--but that doesn't mean you shouldn't watch Cleveland and Cincinnati this season. Here are a few guys to look out for on the offensive side of the ball this season.
Last season, the rookie McClain, supposedly a fullback entering the '08 season, became the Baltimore Ravens' leading rusher with 902 yards and 10 TD's. The six foot, 260-pound McClain received an All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection in '08 after rushing for just 18 yards in his rookie season the year before.
Not only did McClain come close to breaking 1,000 yards on the ground, but he also managed to stay healthy and start all 16 games, filling in for Baltimore's regular running back Willis McGahee. McGahee started just eight games while battling injuries, and the pressure was quickly taken off him thanks to the spotlight shifting towards the young McClain. The question now becomes: What will 2009 bring for McClain, who is expected to play more full back. I wouldn't count on another 900 yard season, but opposing defenses now know of his explosive running style and ability to break out a long run.
We all know that Carson Palmer is back and healthy, and Chad Ochocinco will continue to back up his strong smack talk. Plus, Palmer now has Laveranues Coles in the lineup to replace T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who left for Seattle this off-season. The passing attack of the Bengals is certainly not the problem this season. What Cincy may struggle at this year is running the ball. But, like I said in one of my previous articles, Cedric Benson's career has been rejuvenated after joining the Bengals on Sept. 30 of last year.
Obviously, Benson wanted to come in and just play football with Cincinnati, which explains why he signed a one-year contract for just $520,000. Right away, Benson stepped up and played hard with the struggling Bengals, setting a career-high in attempts (214), rushing yards (747) and even receptions (20) and receiving yards (185) coming out of the backfield. His game was obviously much better then it had been in his four-year NFL career and he managed to stay healthy. Heck, he ran so hard that he gave Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu a consussion after running through him in his first start with the Bengals.
The Bengals showed just how much they believed in him by signing him to a two-year, $7 million contract back in March. I would expect nothing less than more career-highs set by the Texas alum in 2009.
This could be one of the more interesting QB situations in the AFC. Quinn, the favorite to win the starting job going into training camp this season, has shown brief signs of stardom in the few starts he has made in the regular season and preseason and, with experience, could one day become an elite QB. In nine starts last year, Derek Anderson threw nine touchdowns and eight interceptions while completing just 50.2 percent of his passes.
Anderson was named the starter last season because of his Pro Bowl season in '07, but lost his job midway through '08 after struggling to win games and posting a 3-6 record as the starter. Pro-football-reference.com has compared his three-year career to QB's such as Shaun King and Kyle Orton, which is certainly not a good sign. The right thing for Cleveland to do in this situation is hand the keys over to the young Brady Quinn and give him a chance to prove himself. I mean, that is why they drafted him with the 22nd overall pick in the 2007 draft, right?
The Steelers have passed more and more over the last couple of years, mainly due to the fact that Willie Parker has not been the same player since rushing for 1,300 yards and five touchdowns in 2007. With Ben Roethlisberger's increased confidence, Parker's carry total continued to decrease. Injuries have been the story of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the last couple of years, and as of late, Parker has been hit by the injury bug the most, missing five games last season.
Mewelde Moore was acquired before the '08 season to add a little depth to the running back position, but didn't expect to see many carries come his way. But, when the injury bug hit Pittsburgh, knocking Parker out of five games and rookie Mendenhall out of 12 games, Moore got the full workload in four starts. Moore also became the third down back, giving Parker a little extra rest when needed. Moore ran for 588 yards and five touchdowns on 140 carries throughout the regular season, but what really got the Pittsburgh fans attention with Moore was his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield (40 receptions, 320 yards, 8.0 YPC).
Where does Mendenhall come in all this? Well, with a healthy Mendenhall, who is close healthy after his shoulder injury last season, Pittsburgh can do big things with their three-headed backfield. We can kind of already guess what we'll get from Parker and Moore, but with Mendenhall added to the mix, anything can happen. This makes an interesting scenario in Pittsburgh, making Mendenhall the X-factor coming out of the Pittsburgh backfield this year. What will we get this time? Another injury-ridden season, or a 900+ season with six touchdowns?