PITTSBURGH — Despite Pittsburgh reinventing itself as a center for technology and education in the early part of the 21st century, the four cities of the AFC North are not exactly known for being on the cutting edge.
Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Pittsburgh are far from glitz and glamour. They remain blue collar, hard-working places, and their football teams have largely assumed that identity.
That could be why, in an NFL that has been dominated for a long time by spread passing attacks, the AFC North is still in many ways a rushing league. In 2022, the Browns (4th), Ravens (6th) and Steelers (10th) all finished in the top 10 in rushing attempts.
While some teams run out of spread formations, most of the AFC North teams run more traditional-looking offensive sets. The Ravens led the NFL in 22 personnel (two backs, two tight ends) last year, at 45% of their snaps. They also used 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end) 29% of the time. The Browns have used a base two tight end set for years, and the Steelers used two or more tight ends 28% of the time in 2022. Only the Bengals of the divisions’ four teams are exclusive three-receiver offenses.
So it makes sense that in the AFC North, more so than other places around the NFL, the nose tackle still matters. The Steelers drafted Wisconsin defensive lineman Keeanu Benton with the 49th pick in the second round of the 2023 NFL Draft on Friday, and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said that the plan is for him to start at nose tackle.
The Steelers had Tyson Alualu at that spot last year, but it seems they will not retain the longtime veteran. Instead, Benton and free agent signings Breiden Fehoko and Armon Watts will try to turn around a run defense that struggled in those obvious run-down situations where a nose tackle might be employed.
The games against the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens at Acrisure Stadium last fall were lost with the Steelers defense on the field, unable to stop the opposition from running out the clock.
So the Steelers set out to fix that problem, and Austin said that it’s real that the AFC North play means the Steelers need to be able put additional linemen on the field with confidence.
“I think that’s part of our identity,” Austin said. “It’s important for us. If you’re going to beat Cleveland, you’d better be able to stop [Nick] Chubb, if you’re going to beat Baltimore, you’d better be able to stop the run. If you’re going to beat Cincinnati, we know what the quarterback and those guys are going to do, but you’d better be able to stop Joe Mixon and those guys from running.
“So, I think it’s important that the first thing you’ve got to do is win in your division, and if you can’t beat the guys in your division, you’re going to have a hard time winning it. I’m sure we have those things in mind. We’re getting those big guys up front to make sure we can stop the run even if they are running out of pass formations. It doesn’t matter, you still have to lay your hands on people and get off blocks and stop those running backs.”
Later in the third round, it probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the Browns drafted Baylor nose tackle Siaki Ika, the largest defensive lineman prospect in the draft class.
It may be a position that has fallen out of favor around the league, but in the AFC North, nose tackles still matter.