For the last several seasons the AFC North Division of the National Football League has been about two teams, the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers. While that appears to be true again heading into the 2012 season, the Steelers can no longer just brush aside the Cincinnati Bengals and the Cleveland Browns.
For the Bengals’ part, they received a Wild-Card bid under rookie quarterback Andy Dalton and played tough in losing to the Houston Texans. They also added rookie wide receiver A.J. Green and improved greatly on defense as well.
While the verdict is still out on Colt McCoy’s future as the starting QB in Cleveland, no one can say the Browns didn’t play hard in 2011. With the number four selection in the draft, speculation abounds as to whether Cleveland tries to get Robert Griffin III or decides to stay with McCoy and goes after help elsewhere.
What this means for the Pittsburgh Steelers is that getting the NFL Draft right is important every year but this year seems to bring added significance. The Steelers are the “Joneses” that the everyone else want to keep up with and those affiliated with the team knows they must improve just like those trying to catch them.
With salary cap issues and and an aging group on defense, the Steelers will need to be efficient and effective with their selection in the 2012 NFL Draft. The days of your later-round picks just being “reaches” are over. Even undrafted free agents can play crucial parts to a team’s ultimate success. Look no further than the Texans’ Arian Foster.
There was once a time when 6th and 7th round picks were just ‘finishing out the draft’ type selections, but no more. The Steeelrs’ team MVP in 2011 Antonio Brown was a 6th round pick so it appears the Steelers know exactly what they are doing in the later rounds.
You might say I’m jumping the gun a bit considering the Steelers went 4-0 against both teams, but consider both games with Cleveland were tight throughout and the Bengals played us tough for 7 of 8 quarters with the second quarter of game two being the only lopsided one where we scored 28 points.
The AFC is currently on a three-game losing streak in the Super Bowl and every team is no doubt looking to break that. This means the Steelers will need to pay attention to teams outside the North as well but how much attention is the question.
New England will be solid again but still has questions on defense and possibly the offensive line. The New York Jets are loaded with talent but will they continue to implode?
In the South, the Texans seem primed to repeat but Tennessee will be better as will Jacksonville.
The West continues to be the Chargers to lose in terms of pure talent but how much better will the Chiefs and Raiders be with new coaches and can Tebow continue his success in year two as a starter?
What is clear for the Steelers is that they, nor anyone else is heads and shoulders above anyone else in the conference. This is why scouting prospects at the combine is so darn important. Failures are no longer an option when it comes to draft picks but we all know they exist. Limiting those in crucial areas is vital to the success of the team year in and year out.
This year means just a little more and the Steelers and Steelers’ Nation knows it.