It seems that every year the AFC North has an argument for the title of ‘toughest division in football’. This year is no different. With a combination of long-tenured stalwarts, a hot young squad on the rise, and a team building around one of the league’s best up-and-coming signal callers, the division is sure to be hotly contested once again. Let’s take a look in more detail.
The Ravens offense took a step back last season following Lamar Jackson’s MVP campaign. More specifically, the Ravens passing game lagged significantly behind their elite running game. This can likely be attributed to a slight regression by Jackson’s arm as well as a lack of reliable pass catchers outside of tight end Mark Andrews. The Ravens sought out to address their issues with a wide receiver heavy offseason, adding veteran Sammy Watkins as well as Rashod Bateman and Tylan Wallace through the draft. Once Bateman (groin) is able to take the field, this group combined with Marquise Brown will be a welcome sight to Jackson. Unfortunately, however, ascending star running back JK Dobbins has been lost for the season due to an ACL tear in the preseason. Gus Edwards, Ty’Son Williams, and Justise Hill will look to pick up the slack, and the threat of Jackson‘s legs truly makes any runner more dangerous. But the loss of Dobbins will surely be felt.
The Ravens defense has a few question marks heading into the season. With only a moderately successful ability to generate pressure last season, the Ravens’ issue may be exacerbated by the losses of Yannick Ngakoue and Matthew Judon in free agency. The damage was somewhat mitigated by the additions of veteran Justin Houston and first round rookie Odafe Owen. The Ravens maintain a strong secondary, but will need to see improvement in the middle by Patrick Queen in his second season if they hope to meet the standard set by elite Ravens defenses of the past.
The Ravens should be viewed as the favorite to win the AFC North with their balanced attack in all three phases and excellent coaching. The organization has been a model of consistency since its inception, and this season projects no differently.
Joe Burrow is back, and with him ride the hopes of all Bengals fans. Burrow was very impressive in his abbreviated rookie season. Key word there is abbreviated; the Bengals’ inability to protect their young star due to a poor offensive line cost him the remainder of his promising year. The Bengals passed on an opportunity to shore up the line with their first round pick, opting for receiver Ja’Marr Chase over stud tackle Penei Sewell. Chase, despite a horrific preseason riddled with dropped passes, projects to be a star in his own right. He also joins an already stacked receiver room featuring Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins. But it remains to be seen if the choice to pass on Sewell will pan out. The Bengals added Riley Reiff at right tackle and expect big things out of Jonah Williams on the left. Add in a healthy season by running back Joe Mixon, and one could picture a pretty solid offense in Cincinnati.
The Bengals’ offseason defensively seemed more like shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic than tangible improvement. DT Larry Ogunjobi, in. But DT Geno Atkins, out. DE Trey Hendrickson, in. But DE Carl Lawson, out. Promising rookie DE Joseph Ossai, in…until he was lost for the season to injury. It’s a similar story in the secondary with William Jackson departing and Mike Hilton entering the fold. The Bengals have a lot of work to do on this side of the ball with one of the lone bright spots being stud safety Jessie Bates. It might be another long year defensively for the Bengals.
The Bengals are likely a step (or two) behind their AFC North counterparts, but they may be more competitive than some expect. Assuming health, the offense should be improved with tremendous talent at the skill positions and a slightly improved offensive line. This should allow the Bengals to overcome their defensive deficiencies and push for a close to 0.500 season.
The Steelers offense is their big question mark, and they will only go as far as their offense allows this season. The potential limiting factors here are Ben Roethlisberger and the offensive line. Fans wonder how much Ben has left in the tank after a season lacking much downfield action last year. A poor offensive line was only moderately upgraded, headlined by the addition of Trai Turner who himself is coming off a mediocre year. The promise comes from the skill players. In typical Pittsburgh fashion, the wide receiver room is very talented. Chase Claypool and Dionate Johnson will challenge defenses and JuJu Smith-Schuster is back on a one year deal to complement them. Highly regarded rookies, RB Najee Harris and TE Pat Freiermuth, seek to add additional excitement to both the passing and running games. New offensive coordinator Matt Canada will look to put the pieces together to deliver a respectable, complementary attack.
The Steelers defense will prevent them from being a below average team. This unit remains elite, with most of the same faces back from last year. The largest loss in the offseason was edge rusher, Bud Dupree, but production should be matched or exceeded by Alex Highsmith and veteran addition Melvin Ingram. Devin Bush will return from injury to patrol the middle of the field, and the secondary remains solid despite the loss of slot star Mike Hilton. There is not too much concern with this side of the ball with defensive leaders Watt, Heyward, and Fitzpatrick still in the fold and ready to pick up where they left off last year.
The Steelers have a high floor due to their elite defense. They are still a division contender until proven otherwise. The variance of their offense will dictate this team’s ceiling. Last year ended in catastrophic fashion. It is difficult to say if the beginning or end of last season is more representative of the true Pittsburgh Steelers, but the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle.
The Browns return the entire offensive group that lit the league on fire in 2020. The offense exploded behind playcalling guru Kevin Stefanski, a much improved Baker Mayfield, the league’s best offensive line, a lethal two-headed rushing attack, and a plethora of receiving options. The potential that this group showed in 2019 came together last season in a sustainable, consistent way, and carried this team within a few plays of the AFC Championship game. With Baker Mayfield entering a second season under the same coaching staff for the first time in his professional career, the return of Odell Beckham Jr, and the imminent emergence of Donovan Peoples-Jones, the offense actually projects to be even better than last season.
The Browns defense held the team back from reaching their full potential last season. Subsequently, general manager Andrew Berry turned over the majority of that side of the roster in the offseason. Additions were made at every level. Jadeveon Clowney, Takk McKinley, and Malik Jackson are notable additions in the trenches. Anthony Walker Jr and rookie Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah seek to add playmaking to a previously lethargic linebacking group. The biggest improvement came in the secondary with the additions of Troy Hill and rookie Greg Newsome at corner, John Johnson III at safety, and the return of Greedy Williams and Grant Delpit from injury. These players, combined with cornerstones Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward, should give defensive coordinator Joe Woods all he needs to completely reshape this side of the ball.
The Browns are the most talented team in the division and arguably the most talented team in the league. They have as good a chance as any to win the AFC North for the first time in franchise history. The offense should remain elite, so the team’s trajectory and overall prospects will be linear to the defense’s expected improvement.
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