Analyzing the Steelers AFC North Division Opponents Before the Season Begins


With the highly anticipated start of the NFL season approaching, I know we’re all on edge to see our Pittsburgh Steelers take the field for the first time.  By now, however, I’m sure you’ve heard plenty about them so I thought it would be of interest to discuss our division rivals and what each team brings to the table heading into the 2021-22 season.

Baltimore Ravens

Per various sportsbooks, the Baltimore Ravens are the odds-on favorite to win the AFC North.  The Ravens are coming off of a successful season where they defeated the Tennessee Titans in the first round of the playoffs before being trounced in the divisional round by the Buffalo Bills.  This lopsided loss came in a game that saw the Ravens held without a touchdown. 

Following the loss came much speculation about whether Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson was capable of leading this offense to a Super Bowl with, what many consider, a one-dimensional offensive attack.  This run-first offense tried to change that narrative by drafting receiver Rashod Bateman in the first round of the 2021 draft.  Unfortunately, Bateman was injured in camp and will start the season on Injured Reserve.  

The injury bug doesn’t stop there though.  Earlier this preseason, the Ravens also lost running back J.K. Dobbins for the season after a spectacular rookie season and, just yesterday, the team announced backup running back Justice Hill will also be out for the season.  To bolster the roster, the team brought in a lengthy list of free agent running backs including Le’Veon Bell.  All of these injuries elevate Gus Edwards into a firm starting role.  A role that is very different from how he was used as in past seasons as a change-of-pace back.  

The roster depletion adds more uncertainty to an offense that many were already questioning coming into this season.  On the defensive side of the ball, the Ravens lost their top two edge rushers to free agency, Matt Judon and Yannick Ngakoue.  These losses will put pressure on Calais Campbell and Justin Houston to fill their production.  However, both players are on the downswing of their careers and both have their best days behind them.

 All in all, the Ravens have had pretty consistent seasons of late and this season will most likely be the same.  The biggest thing that could change that is whether or not defenses finally figure out Lamar Jackson.  We know that he has big play ability but the Bills put out the blueprint on how to render him ineffective in last year’s playoffs.  With the slew of injuries on the offensive end, any downtick in Jackson’s production could lead to a mediocre season that Ravens fans have not been accustomed to as of late.

Cleveland Browns

Sportsbooks have the Cleveland Browns narrowly finishing behind the Ravens this year, but the buzz surrounding this team coming into the season begs to differ.  Cleveland seems to be the darling of the AFC, with many saying this is the year they finally put it all together.  

We know the offense is full of weapons – quarterback Baker Mayfield still has talented receivers at his disposal in Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, complemented by the two-headed monster at running back of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.   When all healthy, this offense has the ability to put up points in bunches week after week.  

Over the offseason, Cleveland management decided to focus on upgrading the defensive side.  They welcome new signings Jadaveon Clowney and Takk McKinley to aid Myles Garrett in the pass rush.  

Additionally, the Browns selected cornerback Greg Newsome II out of Northwestern and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah from Notre Dame in the first two rounds of this year's draft.  They are expected to make an immediate impact.  There should be no shortage of talent on defense this season, helping to keep pace in a division that has always prided itself on defense first.

As indicated by their offseason strategy, you can see the Browns were aware they needed to sure up the defensive side of the ball if they wanted to make a deep playoff run.  Following the 2020 season, which brought with it a Coach of the Year Award for Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski, Cleveland has their sights on winning the division.  If the offense stays healthy and the upgrades to the defense pan out, you can be assured this will be a team nobody wants to see on their schedule.  As always though, those are two big “ifs”.  

I’m not sure if I’m ready to buy into a team of this makeup getting all of the national hype after one good season.  They certainly bettered themselves this offseason but after all, this is still the Cleveland Browns.  I've seen them fall short of expectations too many times to fall into this trap yet again.

Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals are expected by many to finish last in the division by a large margin.  Coming off of a 4-11 record last season, this team still has a lot of questions to answer this season.  Joe Burrow looked special in his first season but a season-ending torn ACL dampened the spirits in Cincinnati.  Now, he’s looking to rebound from the injury to replicate what he was able to do in the passing game last season.  

Luckily for Burrow, the Benglas drafted wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase of LSU with the fifth overall pick in this year's draft.  He will slide in alongside Pitt product Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins.  Higgins had a breakout season last year to fill out a talented receiving group.  Joe Mixon remains the running back, who has been injury plagued throughout his career, but has been productive when healthy.  

This offense has the weapons to put points on the board but the question on everyone's mind will be if their lackluster offensive line can provide enough protection for Burrow to make it through a full season uninjured.  The youth on this line leads me to think Burrow might be seeing his fair share of hits again this year.  

Defensively is where this team is going to struggle the most.  In the offseason, Cincy lost their best defensive lineman, pass rusher, and cornerback and did very little this offseason in way of replacing them.  With teams sporting such potent offenses in the league nowadays, it could be a long season for this group.  It will be a true test for Burrow and Co. to score enough points each week to keep them in games.

Unfortunately, it looks like it’s going to be another long season for Bengals fans.  This team has been in a rebuild ever since selecting Burrow first overall but that doesn’t make the process any easier to swallow.  

The positive is there are bright spots on the offense.  Burrow certainly showed flashes of brilliance until his injury last season and that could continue.  Additionally, the receiving corps has the talent to aid him in putting up big numbers.  However, wins this season will most likely be few and far between with the defensive struggles this team has.  The focus for this season should be to continue building on the offensive cohesion from last season and to protect their best asset, Burrow, at all costs.  If they can continue to build through the draft, the wins should come eventually... just not this season.

Conclusion

So what does this all mean for the Steelers?  If you listen to the media surrounding this team, Steelers fans should be bracing for an uncharacteristically mediocre year.  Sportsbooks have us finishing third in the division behind the Ravens and Browns by a decent margin.  But as we all know, each year the AFC North is a grind and this Steelers core are no strangers to that.  

As mentioned above, all of our division opponents have weaknesses that can be exploited.  I'm not saying we should win the division but I do think this could be a tighter race than most people think.  Roethlisberger appears to be healthier and fitter than he has been in quite some time and the team has already made a few defensive acquisitions this preseason to sure up some of the weaknesses that were showing early on.  When the temperature starts to drop is when we see this division ramp up and I expect it to be a battle until the end to see who comes out on top between these top three teams!



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