Yes, the AFC North as we all know is a very physical division with a lot of good players on both sides of the ball. Today though we are going to break down some of the running backs, and give our take on the running back cores of each team in the division, and rate them from one to four after sizing them up.
1. Steelers – Willie Parker leads the Steelers running game, last year going for 791 yards on 210 carries in the regular season with 5 touchdowns. He only ran for 71.9 yards per game, which is a little low for him, but the team seems dedicated on giving him more touches in 2009. He has to prove he can stay healthy as well, as nagging injuries last year were an issue for him.
The team also boasts the shifty Mewelde Moore, who relieved Parker last season starting in the first Baltimore game, and he ended up having a big year with 588 yards and 5 touchdowns. He is also a good option on pass plays out of the backfield. Rashard Mendenhall has something to prove after being hurt early last season, and it’s almost like the team has two first-round picks in 2009.
Carey Davis is a good fullback, and Frank Summers could be a sleeper power back that the team needs. Overall, this unit of the Steelers has a lot of depth.
2. Ravens – The Birds have three pretty good backs that can step in at anytime – Willis McGahee, Ray Rice and Le’Ron McClain. McGahee is the feature back, as he had 671 yards a season ago, but the team could be shifting more to Rice, as he showed some skills last season with 454 yards and a 4.2 yards per carry average.
Last season McClain gave the Steelers fits, as he at 260 pounds is a solid back that led the team in rushing with 902 yards and 10 scores. The question now is will the team shift him back to being a full time fullback, or will they still give him some carries now and then?
Cedric Peerman was the teams 6th round pick out of Virginia, and while he may get some carries, will probably be more of a factor on special teams.
3. Bengals – An interesting mix for the Bungles, who were thought to possibly eye Benie Wells in the draft, but instead the team went O-line with Andre Smith. Cedric Benson was brought back, and he’s going to be the feature back in 2009. Last season in 12 games with the Bengals he had 747 yards with two touchdowns, and ended the year with back-to-back big games vs the Browns (171 yards) and Kansas City (111 yards).
The team grabbed former Rams back Brian Leonard in a deal that didn’t make many headlines, but it was a good move and they will like what they see from the hard working back. Last season Leonard played in just two games due to injury, but two years ago ran for 303 yards for the Rams.
Kenny Watson is another player that doesn’t see many touches, but with the lack of ball carriers, he could see some time in 2009 as well. Daniel Coats, Jeremi Johnson and Fui Vakapuna are three fullbacks on the roster. This team was 29th last season with just 95 yards per game on the ground.
4. Browns – The Browns will again count on Jamal Lewis in 2009 to be the workhorse back, as last year despite going 4-12, he still managed to rush for 1002 yards with four touchdowns. The team lost Jason Wright to the Cardinals, so the backup role will fall squarely on Jerome Harrison’s shoulders in 2009.
The team did get Noah Herron this offseason. Last year he ran for 150 yards in 16 games with one TD for the Pack. The team also drafted a back – James Davis, in the 6th round out of Clemson. The Browns have a tendency to get behind, which is why the run game usually doesn’t do very well for this club.
Overall, here’s the rankings for the AFC North Running Back Position:
1. Baltimore – With the three-headed monster of McGahee, Rice and McClain, the Birds are as solid on the ground as any AFC team, and that’s why Joe Flacco was able to lead them to the AFC Title game as a rookie last season. With a solid O-line, this unit should again be good.
2. Pittsburgh – The Steelers have the talent at the RB spot, but the O-line fails at times to deliver, and they need to find a way to get that one-yard they seem to have missed out on 3-4 times in the 2008 season. Summers might be that guy, and Parker heading into free agency has a lot to prove, as does Mendenhall.
3. Cleveland – Jamal Lewis is still a solid back, and it will be interesting to see if Eric Mangini stays committed to him and the run game for the Browns in 2009. They have little after that, as Harrison is okay, and Herron is a big question mark. Can this team stay in games enough to run? That’s a big question.
4. Cincinnati – I gotta believe that this team isn’t thrilled going into 2009 with Cedric Benson as their feature back, but that seems to be the storyline right now. Brian Leonard is going to be a contributor, mark it down, and they are hoping a decent pass game with the return of Carson Palmer will open some holes for Benson and others.