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Every AFC North Teams Biggest Weakness

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Pittsburgh Steelers OC Arthur Smith
Pittsburgh Steelers OC Arthur Smith

The AFC North is widely viewed as one of, if not the most, competitive divisions, not just in football but in all of sports. Known for its physicality, the matchups are always entertaining because of the interest brand of ball on display. The Pittsburgh Steelers will be looking for their first division crown since 2020 and the competition looks pretty steep. Today, we take a look at the biggest weakness of each AFC North team entering the summer, providing some cause for concern for each of the respective franchises.

Steelers Ravens AFC North

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Oct. 8, 2023. — Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

Ravens: Offensive Line Play

After reaching the AFC Championship game, the Ravens are rightfully considered the favorites to come away with the division crown, but they aren’t without worrisome flaws. Baltimore is slated to have three new starters along the offensive line, with both guards, John Simpson and Kevin Zeitler, and right tackle Morgan Moses all exiting the Charm City via free agency. The latter pair of players were getting up there in age but have provided much needed stability for John Harbaugh’s crew up front over the past couple of seasons. Now, second-year offensive coordinator Todd Monken will be relying on Andrew Vorhees and Roger Rosengarten, neither of which have taken an NFL snap just yet.

While the youth movement is reason for pause, the biggest question mark remains the short and long-term health of left tackle Ronnie Stanley. There were times last season where he was clearly less than 100%, sometimes unable to make it through an entire series in consecutive fashion. Reports are swirling that Lamar Jackson has slimmed down this summer, further adding even more mobility but also sacrificing some mass to absorb hits in the pocket. The reigning MVP is a one-man army of sorts on offense, but the young offensive line will need to keep him upright and healthy to make another postseason run and compete in the AFC North.

Watson

Cleveland Browns: Deshaun Watson’s Continued Decline

 

Behind new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, the Browns boasted the best defense in the league, finishing at the top of the league wide leaderboard in both EPA/play and success rate. With most of their starters returning and Myles Garrett still at the height of his powers, it’s fair to assume their dominance on that side of the ball will continue. On the offensive side of the ball, Kevin Stefanski has proven himself to be a qualified play caller and designer, getting high-level play out of an aging Joe Flacco late last season. The Browns have a decent amount of talent offensively but there’s still the elephant in the room: Deshaun Watson.

Beyond his struggles staying healthy, Watson’s play has been abysmal since the Browns traded for him and then subsequently gave him a historic contract extension. Over the past two seasons, the former first-round pick ranks 36th in EPA/play and 40th in success rate among qualifying quarterbacks. The NFL is a quarterback league and the AFC is loaded with talented players at the sports most important position. It seems highly unlikely that Watson will ever be the type of franchise player that lives up to his contract but if Cleveland wishes to truly contend in the conference, they’ll need average starting quarterback play at the bare minimum which is several steps above where he’s been of late.

Steelers offensive coordinator Arthur Smith

Steelers offensive coordinator Arthur Smith at Steelers rookie minicamp on May 11, 2024. — Ed Thompson/Steelers Now

Pittsburgh Steelers: Arthur Smith Offense Remains Stale

When you look at the Pittsburgh Steelers schedule, it looks fairly back loaded, with most of the toughest matchups on paper, including all of the divisional games, coming in the final two months of the season. That sounds challenging on the surface, but it could be a blessing in disguise given all of the turnover on that side of the ball. Pittsburgh completely revamped its quarterback room this offseason by signing Russell Wilson and trading for Justin Fields, but they also have a young offensive line that will undoubtedly face growing pains early on. The biggest question mark remains how potent the Steelers offense will be under new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith.

After failing as the head coach and play caller in Atlanta, Smith is getting another shot for a proud franchise that has really lost its way offensively over the last half decade or so. Smith’s wide zone-heavy offense has grown stale and his lack of growth and development as a play caller was evident as time winded down at his prior stop. Without an overwhelming group of playmakers on the perimeter or a quarterback capable of uplifting others, the lion’s share of the responsibility will fall on Smith to elevate the offense via scheme in the AFC North. It’ll be interesting to see what tweaks he’ll make now that he’s had the chance to step back into a more familiar role. The Steelers season depends on that and how quickly the offense can come together with all of the new pieces.

Cincinnati Benglas DE Trey Hendrickson

Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Trey Hendrickson (91) walks off the field at halftime during an NFL football game, Saturday, Dec. 23, 2023, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Matt Durisko)

Cincinnati Bengals: Suspect Run Defense

Because of the constant injuries to Joe Burrow, 2023 felt like a lost season for the Bengals franchise and ultimately ended in them missing the playoffs for the first time since his rookie campaign. The issues on defense went under discussed and even if you acknowledge the upgrades at the safety position, there’s still question marks up front to compete in the AFC North. Stalwart nose tackle D.J. Reader has been one of the best run defenders in the NFL during his prime, frequently occupying multiple gaps and keeping things clean for their off-ball backers. Lou Anarumo’s defense finished 28th in rushing success rate allowed and they were abysmal without him on the field, allowing 5.1 yards per carry.

 

Reader is now a Detroit Lions and while the team did sign Sheldon Rankins, he’s a different player stylistically. In a division where the other three teams are all looking to be pretty run-heavy from a philosophy standpoint, the Bengals don’t match up extremely well in the trenches with their counterparts. Of course, getting their star quarterback back in the fold will help and they have enough firepower to win shootouts, even against quality competition. However, the Bengals defense played a huge role in their 2022 run to the Super Bowl and in order to get back there, they’ll need to be significantly better than they were last fall.