AFC North Preview: Will Steelers Hold Onto The #1 Spot?

The AFC North has been one the most competitive divisions in the NFL with at least 3 teams being able to claim the division title. The Browns are well…the Browns but with Hue Jackson as head coach and some good draft picks, they may be able to make things interesting at least. The Steelers are the defending champs and many seem to think they will be again this season. The Bengals have had one the more potent offenses over the last 4 seasons but playoff glory is still hurdling this team. Finally, the Ravens have been one the more consistent teams coming out of this division, making the playoffs 4 out 5 years since 2010 but have only won the division 3 times in 10 years and have missed the playoffs the last 2 seasons.

Let’s start with the Steelers first since they are the defending champs. They have, arguably, the most potent offense in the NFL with the Pro Football Focus #3 WR in Antonio Brown and #1 RB in Le’Veon Bell. A team wouldn’t need much more than that but they also have “Big” Ben Roethlisberger whose ability to extend plays is second to none. In recent years, the Steelers have changed from a defensive mindset to offensive juggernaut as to adapt to rule changes that favor pass friendly teams and penalizes aggressive defensive play. The Steelers have found themselves in trouble when they face other high scoring teams as they have gone all in on offensive weapons and have neglected their defense.

The Steelers passing defense ranked 16th overall in the league last year, which is a big shift from 2007-2012 when they were ranked in the top 5. However, the Steelers drafted a pass rusher (T.J. Watt) and Corner back (Cameron Sutton) with 2 of their first 3 picks because James Harrison isn’t getting any younger and the secondary could always need another able-bodied corner-back as solid coverage backs come a dime a dozen. At the end of the 2016 season, Big Ben mentioned that he has been mulling retirement and rightfully so because, being a load to bring down, he has taken his fair share of shots.

Le’Veon Bell’s future with the team is also hanging over the team as Bell and the team were not able to agree on a long-term extension. He has made it known that he wants to paid as the #1 RB and #2 WR and he may have a case since he was #2 in receptions and yardage in receiving. The Steelers gripe with Bell is that they can’t count on him to play a whole 16 game season because of either suspension or injury but no one can deny that he is one the best players when the ball is in his hands.

The Bengals have made the playoffs the last 6 out of 8 years but have yet to win a single playoff game under Head Coach Marvin Lewis and it appears they may have missed their window. During the offseason, The Bengals lost Left Tackle Andrew Whitworth and Right Guard Kevin Zeitler, whom were their best lineman but they did draft speedster John Ross and playmaker Joe Mixon. However, without a solid o-line, it’s going to be hard for Andy Dalton to find time to get the ball to his playmakers, ask Joe Flacco. The Bengals defense has always been competitive but hot heads Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones, while good players, have made too many mistakes that over shadow how good their defense has been. The Bengals are going to have a lot of firepower this season but the lack of a solid front line should give pundits some pause on how good this offense will actually be.

The Baltimore Ravens have missed the playoffs 2 seasons in a row and has placed a lot of heat on John Harbaugh and company to right the ship this season. Ozzie Newsome and his team have decided that they need to go back to what they do best and that’s defense and he has kept his word by surprising pundits and bringing in Safety Tony Jefferson through free agency. The Ravens will now, arguably, have the best Safety pair in the NFL and drafted CB Marlon Humphrey, OLB Tyus Bowser, Tim Williams and DE Chris Wormley to round out a pretty solid defensive draft class. The main issue for the Ravens last year was offense; The Ravens ranked 21st in passing touchdowns and 22nd in rushing touchdowns and it doesn’t help that Dennis Pitta is out for the year and maybe his career. If the Ravens are going to get back to the Playoffs, the rushing attack has to be paramount and smart passing will be key as well, sometimes more throwing attempts isn’t always better.

We now take a look at the Browns and they entered the 2017 offseason where they usually finish, dead last in the division and picking near the top of the draft. At this point before training camp, however, the Browns may be showing signs of coming to life. The Browns made some key additions to the offensive line by adding C JC Tretter and RG Kevin Zeitler and using the Cowboys model of building a solid front 5 and allow your running backs to wreak havoc on the defense and time for the QB to make decisions. The most intriguing thing about the Browns is the faith they are putting into their rookies to produce early; DE Myles Garrett and Utility man Jabrill Peppers are going to add a lot of speed and athleticism to that defense but will QB DeShone Kizer be ready for the big time? Many believe Kizer is a project that will pay off in long run and that they shouldn’t place him into the fire early; it worked out for Aaron Rodgers and the Packers and it would be refreshing to see teams go back to that plan for a change.

The AFC North will be very competitive this year especially for the Ravens because 3 of their first 4 games are against the Steelers, Bengals and Browns; so we will see if the changes the Ravens made will produce fruit. The Bengals most certainly many would say lost more talent than they gained. The Browns will make some gains and show signs of team on the right path but still find themselves in the cellar; it will take a few years to see if these young Browns players will turn into stars. The Steelers added some needed youth on defense and still have 2 of the best offensive players in the game (Bell and Brown) and still have Big Ben but with contract and retirement questions looming, this may be the best chance for this unit to win it all.

Predicted Final Standings

  1. Steelers  10-6 Division winner (common opp. pct.)
  2. Ravens   10-6 (Wild card)
  3. Bengals  8-8
  4. Browns  5-11
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