The AFC North projects to be the most competitive division in football this coming season.
As a result, one Hall of Fame former NFL executive believes the Steelers will have a tough time defending their crown this season.
NFL.com analyst Gil Brandt believes the Steelers are the second-most vulnerable division champion heading into 2021.
Brandt points too the emergence of the Browns and steadiness of the Ravens as the biggest threats to the Steelers’ reign, and views Pittsburgh’s Wildcard round loss to Cleveland as a harbinger of things to come in the division.
“We saw a precursor to the changing of the guard taking place in this division in the playoffs, when the Browns rolled to a stunning 48-37 victory over a Steelers team that crumbled following an 11-0 start to the 2020 season,” Brandt wrote. “Cleveland returns the majority of a team (with some key additions on defense) that looks like a bona fide Super Bowl contender, led by reigning Coach of the Year Kevin Stefanski.”
Brandt is not counting out Baltimore to take the AFC North either, especially with their new additions on the offensive side.
“And let’s not forget about the Ravens, who continue to enjoy superpower status under Lamar Jackson and could look even more imposing in 2021, with pass catchers Sammy Watkins and Rashod Bateman rounding out the offense.”
With regards to the Steelers, Brandt views quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s age and an inexperienced offensive line as the biggest barriers to them repeating as division champs.
“As for Pittsburgh, Ben Roethlisberger still has good football left in him at age 39 — but I worry about that offensive line (which returns only one proven starter, David DeCastro) and a defense with suspect depth,” he wrote.
The Steelers have repeated as AFC North champions twice, most recently in 2016 and 2017. The last club to win the division back-to-back was the Ravens in 2018 and 2019. Cleveland has never won the AFC North since its formation in 2002.
Brandt believes the team most likely to lose their division title in 2021 is the New Orleans Saints of the NFC South, who have to contend with the reigning Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.