05 Sep AFC North Preview
The Pittsburgh Steelers come into 2019 after a disappointing season that saw them miss the playoffs and deal with a ton of drama. Le’Veon Bell missed the whole season, Antonio Brown fought with Ben Roethlisberger and found his way out of town. After losing two superstars, how will Pittsburgh recover? The Steelers are a Superbowl contender this season believe it or not. This is a very talented unit with something to prove after they lost their two best players and missed the playoffs. Mike Tomlin has never had a losing season in his 12-year tenure as Steelers head coach. Ben Roethlisberger is still the best quarterback in this division, with talent all around him. The offensive line was a Top 5 unit again in 2018, this year will be no different. The Steelers have had the same four offensive linemen (Foster, Pouncey, DeCastro, Villanueva) for what feels like forever. The Steelers simply reloaded at their skill positions. James Conner could not have played better as Bell’s replacement, a clear 3-down back. JuJu Smith-Schuster is a star at wideout that’s destined to catch 100+ balls from Big Ben. Donte Moncrief, James Washington, Ryan Switzer, and Vance McDonald round out the receiving corp. This is a more than capable group, maybe not as flashy as Cleveland, but this group will produce. In this year’s draft, Pittsburgh traded up 10 spots to select Devin Bush from Michigan. Trying to desperately replace Ryan Shazier who they missed so much last season. He will solidify the middle of the field for the defense. Edge rushers TJ Watt and Bud Dupree are coming off excellent seasons rushing the quarterback (18.5 sacks combined). The secondary has a lot to prove, Joe Haden is first on the depth chart along with free agent Steven Nelson and rookie Justin Layne. Safeties Terrell Edmunds and Sean Davis are hard-hitting ball hawks that struggle in man coverage. This team will compete for, if not win the AFC North, and be a very tough out in the postseason.
The Baltimore Ravens went 6-1 to finish their 2018, all with Lamar at quarterback. In his 7 games started, the Ravens rushed for 1,607 yards (good grief). Lamar Jackson and the Ravens are going to run the ball and they’re gonna play defense. Jackson has the ability to make Baltimore a top team in the AFC. If he takes a real step up, improves on his downfield passing the Ravens are a dangerous team. Jackson fumbled 8 times in 7 games he started, an absurd number that needs to be cleaned up. He was also sacked 16 times in those games. He struggled with downfield passing, which is where we need to see an improvement in his game for him to take the next step. Baltimore signed Mark Ingram to pair with Jackson in the backfield, an upgrade over Gus Edwards and Alex Collins. Hollywood Brown was drafted to match Jackson’s speed, an interesting but undersized weapon. Ravens have tight ends, Mark Andrews and Hayden Hurst, both drafted in 2018, are safety blanket candidates for Jackson. The offensive line has two great tackles, Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown. Marshall Yanda is getting older on the interior, but I believe this group will hold their own. The Ravens lost a tremendous amount on defense. Losing Eric Weddle, CJ Mosely, Terrell Suggs, and Za’darius Smith. However, Baltimore added Hall-of-Fame safety Earl Thomas to an already great secondary. Thomas will play Cover 3 safety in the middle of the field. This addition allows star safety Tony Jefferson to play a linebacker/safety hybrid to help out a weaker linebacking unit. It is hard to find a better group of cornerbacks than Jimmy Smith, Brandon Carr, Marlon Humphrey, and Tavon Young. Young who just signed a 3 year $13 million dollar deal to be the fourth cornerback. The defensive front will continue to produce, they always have under John Harbaugh. Also can’t forget Justin Tucker, the best kicker in the league. At the least, Baltimore will be a tough hardnosed team especially at home, that will fight for a Wild Card. If Jackson starts tearing the league up early, the sky is the limit for this team.
For the first time since 2010, the Cleveland Browns did not finish in last place in their division. Baker Mayfield is feeling dangerous coming into year two with a loaded offense and sky-high expectations. Cleveland traded for Odell Beckham Jr., a top playmaker in this league, and arguably the best wide receiver in football. Baker Mayfield threw 27 touchdown passes in 2018, setting the all-time rookie record. His downfield accuracy and arm strength were making noise all season. However, he tended to struggle against top defenses. Will Mayfield improve from his first season? Or will he regress? Time will tell. Freddie Kitchens will return as head coach with a team in the spotlight and a ton of expectations. Mayfield was considerably better after Kitchens took over for Hugh Jackson, I like the fit for the young quarterback. Nick Chubb was just as good as Mayfield in his rookie campaign. The pass-catchers are nothing to laugh at, Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins, and David Njoku. The offensive line should hold up, but one injury will put it in danger. They lose Kevin Zeitler to New York but still have Joel Bitonio and JC Tretter on the inside. Cleveland’s biggest weakness is its ability to stop the run. The defensive line features Myles Garrett, Olivier Vernon, Sheldon Richardson, and Larry Ogunjobi who are all stronger pass rushers than run stoppers. The linebacking corps isn’t much better at stopping the run either. Missed tackles galore last season. They will need improvement in this area. The secondary is very good, one of the best units in the league last season. Denzel Ward is looking like a star that will lock up your #1 receiver, with Terrance Mitchell lining up opposite him. Damarious Randall is playing a very good free safety for this defense. TJ Carrie who played very well last year will man the slot corner. Rookie Greedy Williams had first-round value but fell to the Browns this spring. He may not be ready to start yet, but he can be a game-changer down the road. The Cleveland Browns last .500 season came in 2007. This franchise has been bad for a very long time, and now they finally have the answer at quarterback with a loaded roster around the position. However, this team lacks experience and has a rookie coach under a spotlight with a whole lot to prove. This division is going to be very tough, I can see Cleveland dropping multiple divisional games. Will the Browns make the leap?
After 16 long years, Marvin Lewis is finally out as the Bengals head coach. In comes Zac Taylor, Sean McVay’s quarterback coach from last season. The Bengals are all over the “McVay” blueprint and were impressed with the work Taylor did with McVay and Jared Goff. Too bad Andy Dalton is back at quarterback, who is much worse than Jared Goff. 8 years in the league and Dalton still can’t handle the slightest bit of pressure. Dalton has had an underwhelming career, don’t think this team can win with him. Joe Mixon is back at running back after a successful year, he looks like a workhorse back with Gio Bernard rotating in. Mixon is in line for a big year if we’re talking yards. The receiving corps is without AJ Green for half the season. Tyler Boyd looked great last year, he’s a guy to keep an eye on. John Ross the speedster and injury-plagued Tyler Eifert round out the unit. There’s no guarantee Eifert will stay on the field, and there is also no guarantee Ross will even play. The offensive line was a mess last season, and they return pretty much the same unit. No upgrades made since first-round pick Jonah Williams is out for the season. Hard to replicate the Rams offense with a terrible offensive line. The defensive line is a strength for this team, Geno Atkins and Andrew Billings are as tough up the middle as anyone. Carlos Dunlap has a history of pressuring the quarterback, and Sam Hubbard looked promising as a rookie. Linebacker is another weak spot for the Bengals, just poor production overall last season, they will need to rely on young unproven players to play huge roles this season. The secondary is not good either, William Jackson is the best corner, but he’s barely a number one. Dre Kirkpatrick and BW Webb are just not reliable on the backend (DPI galore!). Safety Jessie Bates can patrol the field well but struggles with tackling and Shawn Williams is slowly becoming a liability at safety. There are a lot of holes in this group, highlighted by poor quarterback play and a rookie coach. Struggles are coming for the Bengals in 2019. It is very hard to win football games with a bad offensive line and a bad secondary. They will finish in the basement for the second straight year.