The AFC has many elite clubs in the NFL.
The Kansas City Chiefs won the Super Bowl but not without key wins over other very good AFC playoff teams. One has to marvel at the talent and potential looking at the rosters of each of these franchises.
The Browns have a very difficult uphill road ahead of them in the AFC North division. For starters, just within their division is one of the league’s best teams.
However, each team in Cleveland’s path has flaws. Let’s take a look at the obstacles in the division and also the potential flaws.
Yes, we have to begin at the top of the division - the Ravens. This team is arguably the most complete team in the NFL despite the disappointment of not winning the Super Bowl last year. And what are their flaws? They don’t have many.
Baltimore went a league-best 14-2-0 last year. They had the Number 2 passing attack coupled with the league’s MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson. The Ravens’ 37 passing touchdowns led the league.
They also boasted the Number 1 rushing assail behind Jackson’s scrambling and running back Mark Ingram. Second in the league in rushing touchdowns (21) is a familiar situation, the most rushing yardage (3,296) which broke the NFL record for a single-season, most attempts (596) and most rushes for first downs (188).
To make matters worse, in this year’s draft they took Ohio State stud running back J.K. Dobbins in the second-round to infuse youth into an already volatile unit.
So, where are the flaws?
For one, Baltimore has a hard time holding onto the ball. Their 12 fumbles are the second most and have come at inopportune moments that have killed long drives.
Yet another flaw is how they come out of the gate: slowly. The Ravens have a run-first mentality and prefer to shove their offensive game-plan down their opponent’s throats. If the opposing team is good against the run, Baltimore’s offense will sputter at first.
The Ravens were dead last in the NFL in net yards on punt returns and have had a revolving door of players who have attempted to take on this position. On the flip side, they punted the fewest of any NFL club last year.
And then there is the offensive line situation. Out of the blue, eight-time Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda retired after a stellar 13-year career. Yanda was not only an exceptional player, but a key team leader. He was nasty, strong, physical and had finesse.
The leading candidate to replace Yanda is Ben Powers from Oklahoma taken in the fourth-round of the 2019 NFL draft. Powers was inactive for almost every week during his rookie campaign and when active only saw mop-up action. The knock on Powers is his inability to finish defenders plus he needs better core strength.
Last season the Ravens had a difficult time covering the tight end. However, that was solved in this year’s draft when LSU linebacker Patrick Queen was selected in the first-round.
The final flaw is having to save a win and come from behind.
The Browns notched one of Baltimore’s losses last year soundly defeating the Ravens 40-25 on the road. Although a tight first half, when Cleveland went ahead 24-10 halfway through the third quarter, the Ravens had to go into passing mode and basically ditch the run game. Safety Jermaine Whitehead and DT Devaroe Lawrence each had interceptions that not only stalled the Ravens but gave the Browns more opportunity to pad their lead. Baltimore was suddenly thrust into panic instead of control mode.
There aren’t many cracks in this club’s armor.
This club has always been an Achilles heel for the Browns. Last year after taking the first contest 21-7, armed with a third-string quarterback and their best wide receiver threat out, plus their starting running back and center, Cleveland built a 10-0 lead only to have Pittsburgh reel off 20 unanswered points and triumph 20-13. The Browns needed the win for their slight playoff hope and in the end, neither club made the post-season.
The Steelers look at this season as a rebound year, but there are plenty of flaws.
The offense for Pittsburgh is horrible. Despite getting starting QB Ben Roethlisberger back in action while WR JuJu Smith-Schuster is again healthy, the Steelers cannot mount any type of running game and are forced to air it out for most of each contest. They added receiver Chase Claypool of Notre Dame in the second-round of the draft to give Smith-Schuster some help on the outside and a possible number two option. However, the wide receiver numbers just haven’t been the same since Antonio Brown left.
Does Roethlisberger look like he added some pounds during his inactivity?
This franchise is one of the bottom feeders in total rushing yards (ranked 29th) and average yards per carry (ranked 28th). Running back James Conner is usually more injured than healthy.
Pittsburgh did fix a glaring problem at tight end by signing free agent Eric Ebron this off-season after Jesse James left.
Another flaw is the notion that the Steelers win just because they are the Steelers. In the past few years, this has become more disappointment than reality. No longer can their fans assume that each year the club is building towards a championship when the actuality is the word “rebuilding” is more accurate. Simply put: Pittsburgh can only offer evidence that they no longer justify mention in AFC contender conversations.
The defensive line took a huge jolt when DT Javon Hargrave departed across the state for the Philadelphia Eagles. The starting nose tackle was the defense’s most prominent run stopper. Chris Wormley and Daniel McCullers will fight it out for the starting nod, but neither will be the answer.
Pittsburgh has some issues with special teams. They are in the lower third with average kickoff return yardage (21.5) and have only scored two kickoff touchdowns since 2010. There have been issues with punter Jordan Berry shanking punts and pushing kicks that have given their opponent’s very good field position.
Yet another flaw is the aging offensive line. Right guard David DeCastro is 30 years old while center Maurkice Pouncey and left guard Stefen Wisniewski just turned 31. Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva will be 32 in September. There is youth on the bench, but none have much experience with live NFL situations. Guard Ramon Foster just retired after an 11-year career.
The entire Steeler secondary returns as a plus this year.
Time of possession for Pittsburgh was a huge issue last season with just 2:28 per drive, good enough for a ranking of 28th. Ouch. Other issues for the offense include 5.2 plays average per drive (ranked 31st), total number of plays (956, ranked 31st) and was ranked 30th in drive scoring percentage with 28.6.
A heavier Roethlisberger can’t fix all that, but his presence in the huddle will be much better than the two signalcallers that took his place last year. The big question will be if his arm is sound.
This much is certain: the Bengals can’t be any worse than last season. Their roster is full of new faces with the hope that the results will be a short rebuilding process.
Cincinnati has a ton of flaws, few of which will be solved this year.
The largest issue with the Bengals is the offensive line. This unit should have been the number one priority but instead was basically ignored during the off-season. Starters Cordy Glenn and John Miller were allowed to leave while guard Xavier Su’a-Filo was signed from the Dallas Cowboys in free agency.
In the draft, the Bengals selected three linebackers and only tackle Hakeem Adeniji of Kansas in the sixth-round of the draft plus signed two rookie free agents. Tackle Jonah Williams was taken in the first-round of the 2019 draft but was injured during his rookie campaign. On opening day, that will become his very first experience in an actual NFL contest now that the preseason is a wash. This group will struggle all season.
One major issue with the Bengals is the lack of ability to keep some of their best players. When athletes come into their contract years, because of the losing tradition in Cincinnati the last thing these guys want is more of the same. All players want is to not only work for a winner, but a franchise that has the ability to make a run for the league championship. Top free agents have been staying clear of this Ohio burrow.
Speaking of burrows, just because QB Joe Burrow was taken first overall in this year’s NFL draft does not mean the quarterback position is solved. It just means there is a newer, younger guy in which to get punished each game.
At LSU, Burrow enjoyed one of college football’s best offensive lines. As stated earlier, the exact opposite is true with his new team. He had a stellar season stat-wise last year, but the season before that Burrow’s numbers were just average. If his line does not protect and give him ample time, this will be a huge detriment for this offense with the case of a young guy making too many mistakes.
Cincinnati’s defense has a major flaw in that it gives up way too many big plays. That is one reason why in the draft they selected so many linebackers including Logan Wilson with the first pick in the third-round. He is a very good coverage backer and a sure tackler. Akeem Davis-Gaither from Appalachian State is all-out every down and is also a great tackler, so even though these are young guys, the improvement will eventually come through with experience.
That does not mean their defense will suddenly jump up the league’s defensive rankings. It simply relates to a somewhat better defense that can hopefully stop the run, something this unit was ranked dead last during the 2019 season.
Being able to stop the pass is yet another issue and if this is not solved they will be forced to play from behind for much of the year.
The kicker and punter positions are fairly consistent although their punt coverage teams allow one of the most total yards per return in the league.
What does this all mean for the Browns?
In all likelihood the Browns will not unseat the Ravens for the division lead, but they can break the “Wasteland Years” stretch of win-less seasons and compete for a playoff spot along with finally a winning record.
Cleveland can be better than two of the other three AFC North division clubs with a steady season-long performance. The second half of the schedule will determine the Browns’ fate as they face several teams that were in the playoffs last year.
Not having live preseason games will hurt teams like the Browns because of a new coach and new systems installed. And who knows? They split with Baltimore last year. Whose to say they can’t replicate that feat this year as well?
Can the Browns have a winning record this year?
This poll is closed
Yes, 9-7-0 or better
Sorry. Another notch in the "Wasteland Years"