BALTIMORE RAVENS (13-5)
New faces: : DB Corey Graham, G Bobbie Williams, WR Jacoby Jones, K Justin Tucker, LB Courtney Upshaw.
Key losses: : LB Jarret Johnson, G Ben Grubbs, DE Cory Redding, DB Tom Zbikowski, LB Terrell Suggs (torn Achilles tendon), K Billy Cundiff.
Strengths: Ravens always have sound defense, but injury to Suggs and free agent losses could shift emphasis to offense. Now in fifth season, Joe Flacco has become poised and polished quarterback. Ray Rice is sound out of backfield as both runner and receiver, and second-year Torrey Smith is significant deep threat to go with sure-handed possession receiver Anquan Boldin.
Weaknesses: The pass rush, which must rebound from loss of Johnson, Redding and Suggs. Ray Lewis, now in 17th season, remains solid in middle. But Upshaw has been slow to develop on outside, and Paul Kruger has one career start in three NFL seasons. Someone’s got to make up for Suggs’ 14 sacks and the 4? sacks provided by Redding, and that means first-year defensive coordinator Dean Pees might be blitzing more often than he would care to.
Expectations: Reaching playoffs for fifth consecutive year under coach John Harbaugh is initial goal, but getting to Super Bowl for first time since 2000 is ultimate objective for team that came tantalizingly close last season before losing to New England 23-20 in the AFC title game.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS (12-5)
New faces: : G David DeCastro (first-round pick), T Mike Adams, RB Chris Rainey, NT Alameda Ta’amu, TE Leonard Pope, offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
Key losses: : WR Hines Ward, LB James Farrior, DE Aaron Smith, NT Chris Hoke, G Chris Kemoeatu.
Strengths: As always, defense. Steelers finished No. 1 in yards allowed in 2011 for fourth time in last nine seasons. They’ll miss leadership of Farrior and Smith in locker room but feel they have plenty of talent in reserve. Veteran Larry Foote steps into Farrior’s spot at linebacker and defensive line is considerably younger and quicker with third-year nose tackle Steve McLendon and second-year end Cam Heyward getting more playing time with Smith and Hoke retired.
Weaknesses: Offensive line, again. Tried to address biggest weakness in offseason by drafting DeCastro, and adding Adams in second round. Adams has struggled to adjust to speed of NFL and DeCastro out indefinitely after injuring right knee in preseason. Veteran Willie Colon, recovered from triceps injury that sidelined him for almost all of last season, moves from right tackle to left guard while Ramon Foster fills in for DeCastro at right guard.
Expectations: Team lives by motto “the standard is the standard” and even with younger players on defense taking on larger roles, standard remains winning Super Bowl. Offense will need time to get used to Haley’s complex attack but return of restricted free agent Mike Wallace — who signed less than two weeks before the start of the regular season — gives Pittsburgh deep pool of targets at quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s disposal.
CINCINNATI BENGALS (9-8)
New faces: : RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, CB Dre Kirkpatrick (first-round pick, No. 17), G Kevin Zeitler (No. 27), CB Jason Allen.
Key losses: : G Bobbie Williams, DE Frostee Rucker, DE Jonathan Fanene, WR Jerome Simpson.
Strengths: Rookie combo of QB Andy Dalton and WR A.J. Green should be even better second time around. Defense full of young players beginning to emerge. Fans starting to take notice again after abandoning long-suffering team, which hasn’t won playoff game since 1990.
Weaknesses: No proven receiver to complement Green and stop defensive coverages from tilting his way. Both Green-Ellis and backup Bernard Scott got hurt during preseason, preventing team from figuring out running back rotation. As a result, offense will be trying to develop identity as it goes along.
Expectations: Murky. Bengals made surprising playoff appearance last season in part because of favorable schedule. They beat only one team that finished season with winning record and went 0-8 against other teams that reached playoffs. This season will provide better measure of where they stand. Cincinnati trying to make the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for only the second time in the club’s 44-year history.
CLEVELAND BROWNS (4-12)
New faces: : QB Brandon Weeden (first-round pick, No. 22), RB Trent Richardson (first-round pick, No. 3), WR Josh Gordon, DE Frostee Rucker, RT Mitchell Schwartz.
Key losses: : RB Peyton Hillis, RT Tony Pashos, S Mike Adams, LB Chris Gocong.
Strengths: Browns scored only 218 points last season, K Phil Dawson had 92 of them. The 14-year veteran has been club’s most consistent performer during 13 turbulent seasons. The 37-year-old converted 24 of 29 field goals last season, making seven kicks from beyond 50 yards to tie NFL record. Perennial Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas anchors young offensive line that has major potential and needs to open holes for Richardson.
Weaknesses: Experience. Assuming both Weeden and Richardson, who missed most of training camp following knee surgery, start opener, Browns will be just fourth team in past 44 years to open with a rookie QB and RB in starting lineup. With LB Scott Fujita expected to miss three games with suspension for Saints’ bounty scandal and Gocong out for season with injury, Browns will count on several rookie LBs to have impact. Overall team depth still not adequate.
Expectations: Browns have lost at least 10 games in eight of past nine years, and new owner Jimmy Haslam III’s first season may be another long, tough one. Playing in AFC North won’t help and neither will rugged schedule, which includes four games against NFC East. If team doesn’t make major improvement, coach Pat Shurmur may not be back for third year.