Having been dominated by the Steelers in the past few years, will there be a new face representing the AFC North come playoff time?
The Sports Quotient’s annual Divisional Preview series is here. Over the two weeks, we’ll look at every NFL division and break down each team’s season-long prospects. Today, we’ll look into the AFC North and determine if the Pittsburgh Steelers will have any serious threats to take the division from them.
Winning their third division crown in the past four seasons with a 13-3 record, the Steelers set their playoff expectations high, hoping to capture yet another Super Bowl victory. However, after losing out on the number one seed in their controversial loss to New England in Week 15, their road to a rematch in the AFC Championship became a lot tougher. They hosted the Jacksonville Jaguars in their divisional round game, which resulted in a shocking 45-42 defeat, ending what was one of the most disappointing seasons in Pittsburgh Steelers history.
Biggest Strength: The Killer B’s
Last season, the three put together yet another impressive statistical season. Roethlisberger and Brown connected for over 1,500 yards in just 14 games together, including nine touchdowns between the two. Brown was second amongst receivers in forced missed tackles and led the league in contested receptions in the red zone.
Bell-cow back pic.twitter.com/zzgmtEMhj3— PFF PIT Steelers (@PFF_Steelers) May 30, 2018
Despite holding out for the entire training camp last season, Bell was once again one of the top backs in the league. He led all running backs by a wide margin in total routes run and broke over 60 tackles, which was third best in the league.
With news coming down this week that Bell and the Steelers failed to reach an agreement on a long-term contract prior to the deadline, this could very well be the final season the “Killer B’s” are together. If that is the case, this will be their final chance to make the Super Bowl together. If the ”Killer B’s” fail to even make one Super Bowl appearance, their tenure together will be considered a failure.
Biggest Weakness: Inside Linebacker
What was once their greatest strength on defense has become their biggest weakness. Ryan Shazier was one of the best playmaking inside linebackers in the NFL. He had the highest percentage of targets defended or intercepted in 2017. All of the plays he made for this defense will be greatly missed after he went down with his devastating injury. The Steelers have been left with a huge void in the heart of their defense that they will need to fill in 2018.
Jon Bostic and Tyler Matakevich are expected to compete for the starting inside linebacker job. Regardless of who wins the job, the new starter will provide a significant downgrade from Shazier’s past production.
X-Factor: New Offensive Coordinator
This will be the first season since 2012 where Todd Haley isn’t the Steelers offensive coordinator. While his relationship with other coaches and Roethlisberger has been rumored to be fractured, the success they had on the field together was undeniable.
Randy Fichtner will be assuming the role for the 2018 season and his ability to build off the success of past Steeler offenses will be the true X-factor for this team. Fichtner has been the quarterbacks coach for eight seasons, so his relationship with Roethlisberger is presumably strong, which bodes well for this offense picking up where they left off.
The Key Number: Big Plays On Third Down
Pittsburgh was one of the top third down passing teams in the league last season. On third down’s of 10 yards or fewer, the Steelers had the most 20+ yard passing plays in the league. Their ability to gain big chunks and extend drives was one of the driving forces of this prolific offense. With Fichtner calling the plays, it will be interesting to see whether these big plays will be repeatable.
Playoff Status: Automatic
With the current roster the Steelers have, it would be a shock to many if they failed to win this division. The loss of Shazier is going to loom large in their Super Bowl aspirations come postseason time, but they should have little problems making it there.
Heading into last season, the Bengals were looking to rebound after what they hoped was just one down year. However, after an 0-3 start to the year, the Bengals weren’t able to recover. They finished the season 7-9, putting them third place in the division behind the Ravens and Steelers. The highlight of the Bengals season was their Week 17 victory in Baltimore that ended the Ravens season and helped save Marvin Lewis‘s job.
Biggest Strength: The Secondary
The Bengals secondary isn’t full of big named players, but they were very impressive last season. With George Iloka, Shawn Williams, and Dre Kirkpatrick leading the way, they allowed the eighth-fewest passing yards in the league last year.
Their 2016 first round pick William Jackson played like a star in the making in 2017. He had one of the best Pro Football Focus grades among corners with an 89.2, which was good for eighth in the NFL. In addition to an already stellar group, the Bengals drafted safety Jessie Bates II out of Wake Forest, who could push for playing time this year. The Bengals secondary is very good, and with a relatively young core, they should continue to improve.
William Jackson III delivered in 2017! pic.twitter.com/jTRtFgqs23— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) June 29, 2018
Biggest Weakness: Run Defense
While the pass defense was solid, the rush defense was the third worst in the entire NFL. Cincinnati gave up nearly 130 rushing yards per game, which was abysmal. They didn’t use any of their high draft picks on interior lineman and didn’t add any starters in free agency, so they are banking on the current group getting collectively better for 2018, which is a bit of a risk.
Geno Atkins is one of the best defensive tackles in football, posting a 91.5 Pro Football Focus grade, but there is only so much he can do when commanding double and triple teams from opposing offenses. Andrew Billings, a second-year defensive tackle is expected to be their other starter, but he was the 117th graded interior defender of 122 qualified players. He is going to have to massively improve for the Bengals to solve their run defense issues.
X-Factor: John Ross One Year Later
After being selected in the top 10 of the 2017 NFL draft, John Ross failed to make an impact last season. He played in only three games and had only one offensive touch, which was a 12-yard run that resulted in a fumble. To say Ross’s rookie season was disappointing would be an understatement.
However, Ross has displayed his big play ability in college and ran a combine record 4.22 40-yard dash, so he clearly has blazing speed. Many believed he would be the next DeSean Jackson, but that hasn’t materialized yet. If he is able to stay healthy and make an impact next to AJ Green, he could help take the Bengals offense to a whole new level.
The Key Number: 1,366 Rushing Yards
During the 2017 season, the Bengals had just 1,366 rushing yards. This was the second fewest in the NFL, but they have hopes of drastically improving this number. Joe Mixon was taken in the second round of the 2017 draft for a reason. The Bengals believe he can be the type of workhorse back we see in the NFL today. They also have Giovani Bernard and rookie Mark Walton to help compliment Mixon.
Cincinnati has done everything they can to help the rushing game improve by adding center Billy Price with their first round pick and trading for tackle Cordy Glenn. They are going to see the results in their rushing attack and could end up being amongst the best rushing teams in the league if all goes according to plan.
Playoff Status: On The Bubble
The Bengals are expecting to be much improved this season, but having Andy Dalton as their quarterback limits their ceiling. They have the roster to compete for a playoff spot, especially in the weaker AFC. Should the defense bounce back into 2016 form, the Bengals will be well in the mix for the Wild Card come December.
Baltimore’s 2017 season had a shocking and disappointing ending. Heading into their final defensive drive in Week 17, they were leading on their home field with a potential win-and-in playoff scenario. Then, as seen in the highlight in the Bengals 2017 overview, with one touchdown pass, Andy Dalton and the Bengals ended what could’ve been a special season for the Ravens. They had a top six scoring defense and Flacco generally plays his best football in the postseason. Had the Ravens made the playoffs, they could’ve made some noise.
Biggest Strength: Elite Secondary
Best CB tandem in the NFL? pic.twitter.com/RKTIwBqvCz— PFF BAL Ravens (@PFF_Ravens) May 29, 2018
Led by Eric Weddle, Tony Jefferson, and Jimmy Smith, the Ravens have put together one of the top secondaries in the NFL. Last season, the Ravens secondary did a tremendous job, as did the entire defense, of creating turnovers. They ranked top 10 in pass defense, including a league-leading 22 interceptions. Another year of Jefferson in their system along with the expected development of second-year corner Marlon Humphrey, who posted an 82.7 Pro Football Focus grade and played exceedingly well as a rookie, make the Ravens secondary a potentially special group heading into 2018.
Biggest Weakness: Mediocre Quarterback
The Raven’s biggest weakness this year is the same weakness they have had over the past few seasons: their quarterback. Flacco has been mediocre at best over the past two seasons, posting a 17-15 record with 38-28 TD/INT ratio. He has been the main reason the Ravens haven’t made the playoffs since 2014, which is why the Ravens finally had enough and drafted Lamar Jackson with one of their first-round selections. While Jackson is an intriguing prospect, he isn’t ready to start right away, so even if he is pushed into starting at some point this year, it’s very likely he will still be the weak link of this team for the time being.
X-Factor: Next Back In Line
Kenneth Dixon has battled injuries throughout his first two seasons in the NFL, but he has the talent to be an explosive back for the Ravens. Alex Collins did a very good job filling in last year, but he has a history of fumbling problems, including four last season in only 12 starts. Dixon has only 88 carries in his career, but he is finally fully cleared for the start of training camp, which gives him the opportunity to make an impact. The Ravens have a history of running backs bursting onto the scene (Alex Collins last season rushed for nearly 1,000 yards, Justin Forsett in 2014 rushed for nearly 1,300 yards), so if Collins continues his fumbling issues in camp or during the preseason, it could open the door for Dixon to start and thrive in the Ravens offense.
The Key Number: 9.2% Special Team DVOA
Under former special team coordinator John Harbaugh, the Ravens have consistently had one of the top special team groups in the league. Football Outsiders analyzes every team’s special teams ability by using the five main aspects (field goals/extra points, kickoffs, kick returns, punts, punt returns) and comparing it to the league averaged to find a teams value over/under the average.
This had Baltimore as the top special teams group in 2017 by a large number (their DVOA was 9.2% compared to second place at 6.8%). This means Baltimore does an excellent job of playing the field position game and executing coverage, which helps compensate for their mediocre quarterback play. The Ravens need to build off of this success and continue it into next season.
Playoff Status: On The Bubble
With question marks at quarterback, it is very difficult to predict how the Ravens season will go. However, since the Ravens have such a strong defense, they will be able to keep a lot of games close. The question will be whether Flacco or even Jackson plays well enough to get them over the hump. The Ravens finished 9-7 with Flacco playing poorly last season, so it’s quite plausible that they finish with around that same record, with another chance at qualifying for a Wild Card spot.
The season started and ended with a loss for Cleveland, with many more in between. They finished with an 0-16 record, joining the 2008 Lions as the second team in NFL history to “achieve” that feat. Cleveland was hopeful that they had found their franchise quarterback in the second round of the draft last year in DeShone Kizer. Kizer started 15 games and showed flashes of greatness, but there was far too much inconsistency, which was highlighted by his NFL leading 22 interceptions. The 2017 0-16 finish gives the Browns a 1-31 record over the past two seasons. The Browns didn’t have much to cheer about last year, but the future looks much brighter for Cleveland.
Biggest Strength: Offensive Skill Positions
The Browns haven’t put up many points in their 1-31 stretch over the past two seasons, but that could change very soon. They now have one of the best offensive weapon groups the NFL has to offer. With the new editions of wide receiver Jarvis Landry and running backs Carlos Hyde and rookie Nick Chubb, they are adding even more firepower to a group that already included potential superstar Josh Gordon, former first-round pick’s David Njoku and Corey Coleman, and third down specialist Duke Johnson.
Jarvis Landry is dangerous in the slot pic.twitter.com/7zV0vGDDVC— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) June 1, 2018
Landry and Gordon could form the best receiver duo in the NFL if Gordon can fully regain his 2013 All-Pro form, which saw him put up over 1,600 receiving yards in 14 games. Landry has been a Pro Bowler each of the past three seasons and has solidified himself as the game’s top slot receiver. Surrounding Tyrod Taylor or potentially Baker Mayfield with as many weapons as possible is going to help the Browns tremendously for the upcoming season.
Biggest Weakness: Underwhelming QB Play
The Browns biggest weakness right now seems to be Tyrod Taylor, since number one pick Baker Mayfield will not be their starter going into the season according to head coach Hue Jackson. He has made a career off of making few mistakes with the football (only four interceptions last year in 15 games) and extending plays with his feet (third among quarterbacks with 427 rushing yards), but he is far from a prolific passer. In fact, he ranked 30th in passing yards per game with 186 with the Buffalo Bills last season.
This number should improve slightly because he has significantly better weapons in Cleveland than Buffalo, but Taylor is never going to be a guy you drop back and throw 35 times and feel comfortable about it. The Browns must maintain a balanced offense by handing it to 1,000-yard rusher Carlos Hyde as many times a game as they can.
X-Factor: A Troubled Young Receiver
Antonio Callaway was arguably the most talented receiver in the 2018 draft. However, his off the field concerns pushed his draft stock down significantly. He faced sexual assault charges in 2016 that were eventually dropped and was also cited for marijuana possession in 2017. With all the off-field concerns, he was still selected at the top the fourth round and could end up being the steal of the draft if he puts it all together. He might have trouble getting onto the field initially because of all the weapons the Browns currently have, but should he make it onto the field. His 4.41 speed and exceptional athleticism could help him make an impact.
The Key Number: -28 Turnover Differential
The numbers to remember for the Browns are 13 and 41. The former is the number of turnovers they forced last season, which was the worst in the NFL. The latter is the number of turnovers their offense had, which was also the worst in the NFL. Adding Taylor as their quarterback will significantly lower their own turnover numbers, but in order for the Browns to greatly improve, they will need their defense to force far more turnovers. That number is going to need to get closer to the league average (around 21 last year). Turnovers are a huge part of the game and when you are a -28 in turnover differential, it is going to be tough to win many football games, hence the 0-16 record.
Playoff Status: Cellar Dweller
With tons of young talent surrounding their potential franchise quarterback in Baker Mayfield, the future is very bright. With that being said, they are coming off of an 0-16 season and expectations need to be tempered. This season should be looked at as a building block for success in the future.
Edited by Jeremy Losak.
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