2018 NFL Preview: AFC North

afc-northThe AFC North was always considered a black and blue conference as they were one of the toughest divisions in the game.

Defence took the focus in the North for years as the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers were the dominant teams.

They did it through punishing defences and because of their dominance teams followed suit trying to knock them off of the top.

The Bengals came up quickly with their own defence built to compete knowing that they had to compete with the other big defensive teams.

For years the best defensive team would always take the title and more often than not it would alternate between the Ravens and the Steelers.

The Bengals had their share of the titles recently as well while the Browns have been the team that has taken up the last spot in the division for years.

That focus on the defence has given way recently as the AFC North is beginning to become an offence first division.

There are still major defensive stars and teams that focus on the defence but more than ever teams are focusing on their offence.

The major player in that move has been the Pittsburgh Steelers who for decades were built on a defensive foundation.

They were the home to the Steel Curtain defence and defensive stars that helped them become one of the most feared teams in the league.

The last few years the Steelers have turned to an explosive offence more than a stifling defence to get them to the top of the division.

It has worked and as the Steelers win divisions the other teams are taking notice and trying to get their offences to keep up.

The North is not a division that has abandoned the defence as there are still strong defences in this division.

The offensive revolution has started though and the leaders are the ones who are coming into 2018 as the defending North champions.

baltimore_ravens

There may be no better indication of the shift in the division than the Baltimore Ravens who are caught in between two worlds. They are a team that still relies on the defence to get things done but also a team wanting to see more from their offence in order to begin competing with their biggest rival. That was the story a year ago as the Ravens continued to struggle on the offensive side and their defence just wasn’t good enough to get them to balravensthe playoffs. They were a good team as their 9-7 record was one of their best in recent years but it wasn’t good enough. They fell just behind the Steelers and were unable to grab a wild card spot despite a good season. They will enter 2018 looking to get over that hump and from many eyes, the only way they can do that is to crank up the offensive production. In an attempt to get that production going the Ravens decided to make a number of pretty significant changes. Their best receivers are all gone because they were simply not good enough and in their place have come a trio of veterans and a pair of rookies. The Ravens let Mike Wallace and Jeremy Maclin as well as tight end Ben Watson walk to refocus with a new set of pass catchers. Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead have been added to the roster while the Ravens also took Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews in the draft giving Joe Flacco two big, young targets at tight end. That is going to be the catalyst for this year as these additions need to play as advertised and Flacco needs to find a rhythm with them to avoid an even bigger change in the offseason. As they try to find that rhythm the defence looks to continue to be one of the best groups in the league. With a good mix of young talent and veterans, this defence has the ability to be great. Terrell Suggs leads the way playing a great game even at age 35. They expect some great things out of second-year corner Marlon Humphrey as they await the return of Jimmy Smith after last December surgery. The Ravens are in good hands with their defence and they will fight for that top spot this year but the evolution of the offence will determine where they end up.

cincinnati_bengals

The Cincinnati Bengals are a team that always seemed to be just behind the two top teams and so they figured if you can’t beat them join them. The defensive strategy worked out well with a lot of success but like so many defensive teams the new era of the NFL offence is very much needed to win. They will need the offence to step up in a big way if they hope to compete with the best teams in the league and if they don’t changes cinbengalscould be coming. Last season ended with a 7-9 record that led to plenty of rumours but the team heads into a new season with a team that looks a lot the same as a year ago. Without improvements this season those changes seem sure to happen and chief among them could be at head coach where Marvin Lewis seems to be on the hottest seat in the NFL. The defence is the backbone to this team as they have a lot of talent and should be better as they are led by an all-star lineman in Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap. Without Vontaez Burfict thanks to a suspension, young stars like Malik Jefferson and Jordan Evans will have to make up for the loss. The secondary is the strength of the group even without Pacman Jones as Dre Kirkpatrick, William Jackson, Darqueze Denard and Shawn Williams are a very talented group. That defence should be better than middle-of-the-road and if they are this year the Bengals have a shot at the playoffs. They can’t do it alone though as the offence needs to step up but without many changes there are questions. Something just wasn’t clicking last year and a new scheme is hopefully the solution under Bill Lazor who took over midway through last season. He has the talent as Andy Dalton is not as bad as fans would have you believe and with receivers like A.J. Green and Brandon LaFell, there are plenty of targets. Throw in Joe Mixon who, despite his controversial past, has proven to be a good runner and the offence has the ability to be good. If Lazor has dialled in and figured out the offence they could challenge. If that offence struggles and the defence continues to be middle of the road a third-place finish is pretty likely and big changes seem almost sure.

cle-browns

It was about the worst a season could go for the Browns a year ago but it always seemed to be a long time coming as they put themselves alongside Detroit as the only teams to lose 16 games in a season. They couldn’t find much positivity in the year but for 218 positive vibes are surrounding the team. It all started with the hiring of John Dorsey who was the most sought after GM. Something just seemed different this offseason as the clebrownsBrowns were not necessarily gaining traction for being great but they were beginning to garner attention. On offence, the question will always be about the quarterback but for the first time in a long time, there may actually be a plan. The Browns traded for Tyrod Taylor this year and then drafted Baker Mayfield with the first overall pick. Taylor is not going to break records but he is a good QB and having him there gives Mayfield some time to develop, as long as the plan is followed. There are new weapons for the QB to play with as well when they landed one of the biggest free agent prizes in Jarvis Landry. He is one of the best in the league and alongside a healthy Josh Gordon it could be a challenge for other teams to cover both. In the backfield, the Browns landed Georgia superstar Nick Chubb while Carlos Hyde signed giving them a two-headed backfield. The defence went through its own changes although it was not the biggest concentration. The Browns will look to a lot of young talent in the secondary as Jabrill Peppers, Damarious Randall and rookie Denzel Ward take focus alongside some new veteran faces. In the linebacking corps, the group remains much the same with Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey looking to improve and Jamie Collins hoping to return to form after an injury ended his season last year. Meanwhile, the Browns are looking at Myles Garrett to continue to grow in his second year alongside Emmanuel Ogbah to form a good pass rush where it can all start. The Browns are used to being terrible but there is a feeling that 2018 could be the start of something special. Nothing is known until they put it on the field. Nobody is expecting them to make the playoffs or compete but making progress is possible this year and another 0-16 season doesn’t seem likely.

pittsburgh_steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers are leading the charge in the AFC North with a new concentration on offensive football, a big change from days past. The Steelers abandoned are their old defensive ways for an offence that now counts among the best in the league. That is the unfortunate part for this team though as they are one of the best in the league and yet they can’t seem to get to the end. Last year they headed to the playoffs and pitsteelersseemed like they were a sure bet to make a deep run but lost in the divisional round in a disappointing end to a promising season. This team now rides on the connection between the three biggest stars on the offence. Ben Roethlisberger remains one of the strongest arms in the game and one of the hardest QBs to tackle. His connection with Antonio Brown gives the Steelers a chance to break a game open at any moment. In the backfield, Le’Veon Bell has that same ability with breakout speed. The only issue might be that Bell continues to fight with the organization and seems to be on his way out skipping training camp for another year. That will leave James Conner to take the reigns and he could have a lot more to do with this offence thanks to Bell’s absence. In the receiving corps, Brown remains the guy but the emergence of JuJu Smith-Schuster gives them another deep target and softens the blow of losing Martavis Bryant. On the defensive side of the ball the loss of Ryan Shazier, hit this group hard last year and they could never find their groove. Shazier continues to recover and won’t be back this season so the Steelers will need to get used to life without the heart of the defence. Without him, the leadership falls to a younger group. T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree have developed into two very good pass rushers and hope to continue that this season while helping the Steelers to get back. The secondary will be an interesting group as Morgan Burnett provides a solid veteran presence alongside Artie Burns and Terrell Edmunds. Up front, Cameron Heyward leads the charge as the prototypical Steeler defensive player. The Steelers are an explosive team and they can be great but they need to take that extra step. If they don’t do it now they could be out of luck as the window is closing but they are still division champions in the making.

Prediction:
Things could look very similar to the way they ended last year in the North as the best team remains the best team and everyone else sits behind them. The Steelers are the class of the division and although they are getting older they are still favourites to win the division. Baltimore has a shot but their offence is still too unknown to say that they will compete for the top spot. They could get a playoff spot but it will depend on their offensive abilities. The Bengals are lacking and a refusal to make changes doesn’t provide a lot of confidence. Meanwhile, in Cleveland, hope is actually alive and although they won’t be good enough to get out of the basement they should be better. The North is a shifting division and the leaders of that shift remain at the top for now.

afcnorth-prediction

 

 

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