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Starkey: Steelers look like 10-6 team

| Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012, 11:08 p.m.
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin high fives Troy Polamalu after dropping Rams running back Steven Jackson for a loss on third down at Heinz Field Dec. 24, 2011. Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review

Their season starts in Denver, but the Steelers' best chance for a successful campaign begins, as always, in the brutal AFC North.

Not even the Cleveland Browns can ruin this division's reputation. It's the only one that has sent multiple teams to the playoffs each of the past four seasons, including three in 2011.

Bet on this: More than one will make it again. The Steelers, Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals all appear capable of winning 10 games or more.

“Baltimore will be at the top of the AFC, as they are year-in and year-out,” says Steelers safety Ryan Clark. “Cincinnati made a push, and I think they can become a team that advances in the playoffs.”

Tongue planted firmly in cheek, Clark added: “And the Pittsburgh Steelers are going to be the Pittsburgh Steelers — we're going to be old and slow, and we're going to try to figure out if we can make some plays.”

The division's nature has changed since its inception in 2002 (a year the Browns actually made the playoffs, by the way, with an offensive coordinator named Bruce Arians). Once rock 'em and sock 'em, it is becoming spread 'em and carve 'em.

It's a pass-first division now, no different than the rest of the league.

“The game is changing,” Clark says, “from a tough man's sport into basketball with shoulder pads on.”

Conventional wisdom might still peg the Ravens as “run-first” and the Steelers as “getting back to the run,” but let's be serious. The Ravens passed the ball 54 percent of the time last season, and the arrow is pointing up: They unveiled a no-huddle attack this preseason.

The Steelers have a $102 million quarterback and one of the NFL's best receiving corps. Think they're gonna line up with a fullback every play?

Like everybody else, AFC North teams must answer two critical questions if they are serious about winning a Super Bowl: 1. Can we pass? 2. Can we stop the pass?

Ancient Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis is a monument to the times: He has dropped 20 pounds in hopes of better defending the pass.

A look at the contenders …


What we like best: Point potential from an offense that was the AFC's youngest by the end of last season. … Ben Roethlisberger, who gives this team its best chance to win a seventh Super Bowl. … Youthful energy along the defensive line and proven star power in the back seven.

Don't like: Age and lack of depth looming in certain sectors of the defense (sorry, Ryan). … The fact that an offensive line that was supposed to be significantly upgraded really wasn't.

Breakout player: Ziggy Hood.

Keeping an eye on: The budding relationship between Todd Haley and Roethlisberger. Over-under on first sideline blow-up: third quarter of Jets game, Week 2.

Record: 10-6 (wild card)


What we like: Joe Flacco's new position coach: Jim Caldwell, who brought the no-huddle concepts used with Peyton Manning. … Ray Rice. … Under-the-radar impact players on defense, including Jameel McClain, Pernell McPhee and Bernard Pollard.

Don't like: Age and lack of depth looming in certain sectors of the defense (sound familiar?) … The fact that an offensive line that was supposed to be significantly upgraded really wasn't (sound familiar?).

Breakout player: Torrey Smith.

Keeping an eye on: Terrell Suggs' return from a torn Achilles. He vows to regain top form immediately. Seems unlikely.

Record: 11-5


What we like: Dalton to Green. You're going to be hearing that a lot. As Clark says, “Green is a superstar.” … A full offseason for coordinator Jay Gruden to implement his offense. … Disruptive defensive line, especially if Carlos Dunlap fulfills his potential.

Don't like: Pass defense questions — Leon Hall coming off Achilles injury, Nate Clements aging and safety Taylor Mays unproven. Outside the division, Bengals faced a bevy of bad quarterbacks last season. They don't have that luxury this year. Will see plenty of good ones over the second half, including the Manning brothers back-to-back.

Breakout player: Jermaine Gresham.

Keeping an eye on: Jeff Faine, released by Tampa, replaces Kyle Cook at center.

Record: 9-7 (miss playoffs).

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be reached at

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