In this eight-part series, we’ll be previewing all thirty-two NFL teams by division.
This is the AFC North.
Last season, this once competitive division was ruled by the dominant Pittsburgh Steelers, but the Baltimore Ravens had a legitimate chance at the playoffs until they blew a wildcard spot with only a few seconds to go in their final 2017 game.
The upcoming 2018 season looks to end the same way for this unbalanced grouping unless the underachieving Bengals rise above their uneventful offseason or the Cleveland Browns can take advantage of their exciting offseason acquisitions and far excel their obvious ‘win more than zero games’ goal.
The Pittsburgh Steelers
By the end of the 2017 NFL season, the Pittsburgh Steelers had won two more games than they did in 2016. They topped their division with a stellar record of 13-3, their best since 2004. It was the second season in a row that they won the AFC North.
Their quest to return to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2011 was cut short by the Jacksonville Jaguars, who squeaked past the Steelers by a score of 45-42 in the Divisional Playoffs. The team was criticized afterwards for seeming to look past the Jags to focus on the anticipated rematch with the Patriots.
Steelers Offense still a strength
Starting quarterback big Ben Roethlisberger turned 36 years old in March. His TD/INT numbers in 2017 (28/14) were just slightly less than the previous 2016 season (29/13), while his overall yards improved (3,819 in 2016 and 4,251 in 2017). With the addition of Mason Rudolph, the efficient rookie quarterback from Oklahoma State, expect Big Ben to prove age doesn’t matter in 2018 as he competes to stay relevant (and healthy) for at least 2-3 more seasons.
Head coach Mike Tomlin, with his overall winning percentage of .659, will be looking to keep the Steelers offensive train rolling effectivly despite letting go longtime offensive coordinator Todd Haley, now with the (sometimes rival) Cleveland Browns.
Former Steelers quarterback coach Randy Fichtner will take over offensive duties, his first opportunity as a coordinator in the NFL. Of course having Le’Veon Bell, one of the NFL’s top rushers (he ran for 1,291 yards and 9 touchdowns in 2017) and Antonio Brown, one of the league’s premier receivers (he caught 101 balls for 1,533 yards and 9 touchdowns last season), makes running the offense a whole lot easier.
So many options for Big Ben
On top of All Pros Bell and Brown, Roethlisberger has some other offensive tools at his disposal. Tight end Jesse James has become a consistent target, grabbing 43 receptions last season for 372 yards and 3 touchdowns.
All Rookie wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster put up incredible first year receiving numbers in 2017 with 58 catches for 917 yards and 7 touchdowns. The team expects a similar performance from Smith-Schuster in 2018, which is likely so long as he can stay healthy, not a given for Smith-Schuster who has fought through injuries throughout his young career.
Expectations are also high for drafted wide receiver James Washington who caught for 4,472 yards and 39 touchdowns during his playing days with Rudolph at Oklahoma State. Washington’s big college numbers and exciting highlight reel catches were good enough to earn him the prestigious Fred Biletnikoff Award for outstanding play in 2017.
Steelers’ Defense a bit lacking
It’s the Steelers defense, particularly the secondary and the pass rush, that has needed the most work. With the cutting of controversial safety Mike Mitchell, the signing of former Packers starter Morgan Burnett and the drafting of safety Terrell Edmunds (Virginia Tech) in the first round, the Steelers are much improved at that position.
Still short an effective inside linebacker, defensive coordinator Keith Butler’s squad still has a way to go before it’s Super Bowl ready.
Bottom Line: Given their strong offense and their weak AFC North competition, the Pittsburgh Steelers appear to be heading to the top of the division for a third year in a row.
ESPN predicts the Steelers will go 11-5 in 2018.
Bleacher Report predicts the Steelers will go 9-7 in 2018.
CBSSports.com Vegas Expert has the Steelers 2018 over/under win total at 10.5
The Baltimore Ravens
In the final game of the 2017 season, all the 9-6 Baltimore Ravens had to do was beat the 6-9 Cincinnati Bengals and they would have been an AFC wildcard team in the playoffs and beat their three-year playoff drought.
They had already beaten the Bengals in Week 1 by a score of 20-0 so there wasn’t a player on the team (or a football fan watching) who thought their Week 17 results would be any different.
But with less than a minute to go, the Raven’s 12th ranked defense could not stop the Andy Dalton to Tyler Boyd 49 yard touchdown pass and with that unexpected loss their season was abruptly ended.
Joe Flacco vs. Lamar Jackson
Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco’s passing offense ranked 29th in the NFL last season despite his throwing for 3,141 yards for 18 touchdowns. It surprised nobody this offseason when in the Ravens’ general manager Ozzie Newsome’s final draft they traded up to grab a young team leader in a quarterback rich draft pool.
With their second first round pick, the Ravens selected Lamar Jackson, the exciting young quarterback from Louisville. Super Bowl XLVII winner Flacco is not a big fan of anyone else being under his center, so it will be interesting to watch how offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg tries to work Jackson into the mix.
Ideally, Jackson will spend most of the season with a clipboard on the sidelines learning the playbook, but it probably won’t take much to get the Ravens fans calling for him to play.
Improving the offense
Running back Alex Collins is looking to continue his momentum into 2018. Last season he carried the ball 212 times for 973 yards and 6 touchdowns for an average of 4.6 yards per run, which gave him an overall Bleacher Report ranking of 12th at his position.
Drafting Oklahoma right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. has improved an already deep offensive line, and first round draft pick tight end Hayden Hurst (South Carolina) should give Flacco yet another offensive weapon to use to the team’s advantage. That’s in addition to all of the receivers the team signed, Willie Snead (NO), Michael Crabtree (OAK) and John Brown (ARI), while they also drafted ball catchers Jordan Lasley (UCLA) and Jaleel Scott (New Mexico State).
Defensive coordinator changing of the guards
Less than 24 hours after that 2017 season ending loss to the Bengals, Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees announced his retirement.
Head coach John Harbaugh snagged his linebackers coach Don “Wink” Martindale for the position, hoping his aggressive mentality will serve to improve the Raven’s less-than-the-normally-stellar defense that went from 9th best in 2016 down to 12th last season.
Bottom Line: With a fairly easy schedule in 2018 and a defense that kept opponents at 18.9 points a game (6th in the NFL) in 2017, look for the Ravens to put up a challenge for at least a Wildcard spot in 2018.
ESPN predicts the Ravens will go 9-7 in 2018.
Bleacher Report predicts the Ravens will go 8-8 in 2018.
CBSSports.com Vegas Expert has the Ravens 2018 over/under win total at 8.5
The Cincinnati Bengals
With a disappointing record of 7-9, the 2017 Cincinnati Bengal’s ended their season as spoilers to the Baltimore Raven’s playoff hopes. Their offense only managed to score 18.1 points per game while their defense allowed an average of 21.8 points a game. It doesn’t take a math genius to figure out the odds of that being a losing equation over the course of an entire season.
Speaking of which, the Bengals have had two straight losing seasons, but that didn’t keep the team from resigning head coach Marvin Lewis to a two-year contract extension despite only having a 0-7 playoff record.
Lewis has been the Bengals’ head coach since 2003 and has amassed a total record of 125-112-3 for a winning percentage of .527, which makes him the 26th winningest coach in NFL history. Compare that to Dick LeBeau, the Bengals head coach he replaced, who had a winning percentage of only .267 and you can see why Bengals owner and general manager Mike Brown is hesitant to let Lewis go.
Trouble on both sides of the ball
In 2017, the Bengals’ defense ranked 18th in the league and that’s not the worst of the news. The Bengals’ offense ranked even lower at the last place 32nd spot. Thanks in part to a weak offensive line, they scored only 290 points while upper tier teams like the New England Patriots totaled 458.
Under the leadership of offensive coordinator Bill Lazor (who took over for Ken Zampese after the Bengals’ Week 2 loss to the Houston Texans) veteran quarterback Andy Dalton moved the ball only 280.5 yards per game. That won’t win many Super Bowls when teams like the Champion Philadelphia Eagles are moving the ball 365.8 yards per game.
The Bengals tied at 29th in rushing at 3.6 yards per carry and 31st in total rushing yards (1,366) while surrendering 40 sacks and coming up weak on second half scoring.
Fixing the offensive shortcomings
To help fix their O-line troubles, the Bengals drafted tough Ohio State center Billy Price to beef up their quarterback’s wall. The hope is that Price can help maintain Dalton’s pocket better than in the past, which should lead to less incompletions and a better turnover ratio than their -9.
They also traded for two veteran offensive tackles - with the Buffalo Bills for Cordy Glenn and the New York Giants for Bobby Hart.
With his 1,078 receiving yards and 8 touchdowns in 2017, top rated wide receiver A.J. Green remains a very bright spot on an otherwise unexciting offense that lost backup quarterback AJ McCarron and center Russell Bodine to the Buffalo Bills.
A new defensive coordinator
A slightly upgraded defense (defensive tackle Chris “Swaggy” Baker from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and linebacker Preston Brown from the Buffalo Bills) led by new defensive coordinator hire Teryl Austin will try to keep their opponent’s scoring lower than their 2017 17th ranked 21.8 points per game.
Of course, losing linebacker Vontaze Burfict for the first three games because of a suspension doesn’t help Austin much, especially given Burfict’s 69 tackles and 1.5 sacks in his partial 2017 season.
Bottom Line: The Bengals have the third-easiest 2018 schedule despite having to face five 2017 playoff teams. With all the coordinator shuffling and an otherwise fairly quiet offseason, it looks like it’s going to be another 3rd place finish in the AFC North for Cincinnati in 2018.
ESPN predicts the Bengals will go 8-8 in 2018.
Bleacher Report predicts the Bengals will go 7-9 again in 2018.
CBSSports.com Vegas Expert has the Bengals 2018 over/under win total at 5.5
The Cleveland Browns
There’s nowhere to go but up for the 0-16 Cleveland Browns. Judging by the quantity (and some of the quality) of their 2018 offseason moves, up is exactly where the struggling Browns plan on going.
The 2017 team wasn’t actually as bad as their winless record would indicate, but too many red zone turnovers, dropped passes and a league leading 28 interceptions (22 of which were thrown by rookie starting quarterback DeShone Kizer) kept turning possible wins into embarrassing losses.
A New GM makes all the difference in the world
Under new general manager John Dorsey, year three of the Browns’ five-year turnaround began somewhat impressively. Since replacing Sashi Brown in December 2017, Dorsey has brought in a team of expert player evaluators (something sorely lacking in previous Browns’ front offices) that include former Green Bay executives Eliot Wolf and Alonzo Highsmith.
Another huge (and somewhat surprising) move by Dorsey was to let the 1-31 head coach Hue Jackson keep his job. Except now instead of letting Jackson run the offense as he’s done in the past, Dorsey brought in the fiery former Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley to do the job of turning the struggling offense around.
Drafting and trading frenzy
With the large $100+ million cap space left by former GM Brown, Dorsey used free agency to beef up the Browns’ weak offense. He traded the Buffalo Bills for Tyrod Taylor, a veteran quarterback who not only brought his Bills to the playoffs for the first time in seventeen years, but who also proved he could hang onto the ball by throwing only four interceptions in 2017, both desirable attributes to the playoff starving and pick-crazy Browns.
Dorsey also traded the Miami Dolphins for stellar slot receiver Jarvis Landry and the San Francisco 49ers for Carlos Hyde, a running back with almost a thousand yards rushing and 8 touchdowns in 2017 with zero fumbles. He also drafted powerful Georgia running back Nick Chubb to make deeper an already deep position.
Browns quarterback troubles may be over
By the time the 2018 draft rolled around, Dorsey cleared the rest of the Browns’ ineffective quarterback room to make way for the number one pick overall. He grabbed undersized (@6’ 1”) but strong-armed and accurate Oklahoma State quarterback Baker Mayfield for his ability to lead, compete and hang onto the ball. Taylor will start in 2018 while newly acquired backup quarterback Drew Stanton oversees Mayfield’s sideline tutelage.
Taylor will have Landry, historically suspended Josh Gordon and often injured Corey Coleman as his promising targets if the latter two can stay out of trouble and injury free.
Decent defense made better
Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was kept on for the 2018 season. His low-ranked yet at times promising 2017 defense (ranked 14th overall) was made stronger by drafting top ranked Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward and by trading for free safety Damarious Randall.
Bottom Line: No team has tried harder to improve this offseason than the Cleveland Browns. But when you’re recovering from a winless season and a history of losing, there’s still a long way to go before this team gets competitive. If everyone does their job and the O-line can keep Taylor healthy, the Browns could be a fun team to watch go nowhere in 2018 and maybe somewhere in the seasons beyond.
ESPN predicts the Browns will go 5-11 in 2018.
Bleacher Report predicts the Browns will go 7-9 in 2018.
CBSSports.com Vegas Expert has the Browns 2018 over/under win total at 4.5
For the upcoming 2018 season, it looks like the AFC North will once again belong to Big Ben’s Pittsburgh Steelers. His dominant offense has too many effective tools for its divisional rivals’ sub-par defenses to overcome consistently.
Unless Baltimore quarterback Flacco greatly (and quickly) improves his Raven’s offensive numbers, look to see a lot of his rookie replacement Jackson on the field. Same goes for Bengals’ leader Dalton if he can’t move the ball a lot better with his newly improved Cincinnati O-line.
There’s no telling how much real damage Browns’ veteran quarterback Taylor and his beefed up Cleveland offense will do in 2018, but he definitely has the experience and talent to lead this young group to some wins. And for a team that couldn’t do that even once last season, even just a few wins would be mighty refreshing.