(CBS Pittsburgh) – The Pittsburgh Steelers won the AFC North last year, only to face the Cleveland Browns in the Wild Card round. The Browns, who made the playoffs for the first time in nearly 20 years, avoided the Steelers at home. Then they nearly toppled the Kansas City Chiefs next week. The Baltimore Ravens also won their Wild Card game, only to be handled by the Buffalo Bills. The division may very well end up with three playoff teams again, but expect the order to be a little different.
Cleveland is the early favorite to win AFC North, as CBS Pittsburgh sports anchor Bob Pompeani sees it. “… they have really strengthened themselves and they have stayed away from significant harm. The Steelers have a lot of things they deal with from an injury standpoint when they go into Week 1 and Baltimore in the same way. Cincinnati is a team that is coming and going. But I do not think they have enough yet. So I think Cleveland, it’s their division to lose. ”
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“They are stacked,” Pompeani continued, “and they are ready to take the next step after coming to Pittsburgh and beating the Steelers last year.”
Quarterback Baker Mayfield improved his first two seasons and he has the players around him to make another leap. The offensive line is among the best in the league. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt combined in over 1,900 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground. After an injury-shortened season, Odell Beckham is up against Jarvis Landry again.
Brown’s defense was a mediocre unit last season, despite Myles Garrett’s presence. But off-season additions can raise it enough to make them a multi-year candidate. The team was active in free agency and brought defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, defensive tackle Malik Jackson, linebacker Anthony Walker and safety John Johnson. The NFL draft also gave cornerback Greg Newsome and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. A loaded defense should help them contain the quarterback talent they will face in the division alone.
It starts with Ben Roethlisberger, a future Hall of Famer approaching the end of his career. He has the weapons to put numbers up, including a trio of talented wide receivers in JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool for first-round pick Najee Harris. But it is unclear whether he will get blocking to perform.
“With the Steelers, the issue is an offensive line,” Pompeani pointed out. “Just today, Zach Banner went on IR. He’s a tackle. They’ve moved guys around. They have a rookie who starts at left tackle. It’s never easy in a division that has a lot of guys who can get to the quarterback. And Ben Roethlisberger at 39 may be successful, but that line will dictate how successful he becomes or not. ”
The Steelers defense has led the NFL in sacks of over 50 for four years in a row. And last year TJ Watt had 15 of them, good enough to lead the NFL among the players. The Runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year is close to getting a contract extension, which would make him the league’s highest paid defender. The team lost a large number of contributors during the offseason, including linebackers Bud Dupree and Vince Williams and cornerbacks Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton. But it’s still lineman Cameron Heyward, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and cornerback Joe Haden.
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The Ravens line up behind Lamar Jackson, one of the most dynamic players in the NFL today. And their success will depend on his success. But he needs to use the pieces around him to win matches, and injuries have already begun to affect the team.
“As far as Baltimore is concerned, Lamar Jackson is an MVP,” Pompeani notes. “But last year the numbers dropped. I think the league can catch up with him. And they lost JK Dobbinsand others in their defense. So Gus Edwards will be a man who will be looked at very, very seriously as a guy who can tote the ball. Can he do that as a regular featured back? ”
The Ravens led the NFL in rushing last season, with Jackson topping 1,000 yards alone. Edwards will have to tackle it with Justice Hill and Ty’Son Williams. The Raven crime offense was last in the NFL last season. Jackson, however, has plenty of weapons, including the close end Mark Andrews. Injuries have also been an issue here. Recipient Marquise Brown experienced limited action in the training camp, and lots of other recipients also missed time. Sammy Watkins, who signed this past offseason from the Kansas City Chiefs, should be able to stretch the field with his speed if he is healthy.
The Ravens defense, which was in the top 10 against races and passing last season, remains one of the NFL’s better units. They added linebacker Justin Houston, who has a strong history of getting to quarterback, as well as linebacker Odafe Oweh late in the first round. Cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters are both among the NFL’s best. Linebacker Patrick Queen and improving, and tackle Justin Madubuike has looked good in the preseason. In fact, the entire defense has impressed in the preseason (for what it’s worth), allowing for a touchdown per game. Match in the preseason.
The Bengals remain far behind their division rivals, even as they make progress. Welcome back Joe Burrow is a big step forward for them. He gets wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase to throw in again after the Bengals drafted him in the first round. Guard Jackson Carman, taken in the second round, helps keep Burrow upright. Further changes along the offensive line may help protect Burrow, though it is unclear how effective they will be.
“In Cincinnati, it’s about Joe Burrow, his health coming back from his injury and surgery,” Pompeani says. “They are still a while away from being a competitive team, but how he goes will dictate how they go. And if he has a good year jumping back from that operation – and it’s never easy – then you might look at them next year as a team that is close to being a playoff team, but not this year. ”
The Bengals’ defense fought last season, especially against the race, where they gave up 148 yards per game. Match. They should improve a bit this season with the addition of defensive end Trey Hendrickson of the New Orleans Saints and defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi of the Cleveland Browns. The Bengals also drafted defensive end Joseph Ossai in the third round, but he will miss the season with a knee injury. Ex-Dallas Cowboy Chidobe Awuzie takes over one of the corner locations.
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AFC North kicks off season in the spotlight as Browns face Chiefs in CBS’s Week 1 Game of the Week