2016 NFL Season: Previewing the AFC North

The AFC North has acquired a reputation of being a nasty, mean, hard-hitting division, where the team with the best defense has the biggest advantage. Don’t expect to win this division with finesse or fancy offensive schemes. You win the North with defense.

That belief has morphed slightly in the last year or so. While defense is still what makes this division what it is, the offenses have caught up a little bit. Two of the most dynamic WRs in all the NFL reside in Pittsburgh (Antonio Brown) and Cincinnati (AJ Green); Le’Veon Bell is one of the top RBs in the league; and 3 of the 4 teams (sorry Cleveland) have enjoyed enormous success on the offensive side of the ball in the past few years.

Yes, there will definitely be some nasty, defensive divisional games played this season in the AFC North. But these offenses have the ability to score a lot of points.


Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals offense will take a step backwards with the loss of OC Hue Jackson.

Jay Gruden — gone. Mike Zimmer — gone. Now, Hue Jackson — gone. Marvin Lewis has seen his coordinator tree get picked clean over the past few seasons. One has to wonder at what point the Bengals will take a step in the NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Buffalo Billswrong direction after losing so many top assistants.

The defense has improved over the past 3 seasons — and even improved last year without Zimmer leading the charge. The defensive side of the ball is likely to face it’s fair share of tests in 2016 — Pittsburgh’s offense is just as potent as it was in’15, the Ravens added depth and speed at WR, and their former offensive coordinator is in Cleveland trying to reboot the Browns’ offensive attack.

The loss of Hue Jackson threatens to undo some of the positive strides that the offense — quarterback Andy Dalton in particular — have made over the last few years. Returning pieces like AJ Green on the edge, Tyler Eifert at tight end, and Giovanni Bernard and Jeremy Hill in the backfield will provide Bengal fans with a sense of comfort. But losses of WRs Marvin Lewis and Mohamed Sanu will definitely have an impact on Cincinnati’s passing attack. And more importantly with Jackson gone, how will Dalton respond with seemingly all the pressure now squarely placed on his right arm? In addition, back-up and former Alabama QB AJ McCarren performed well in the final few games in 2015 and was minutes (and a couple boneheaded plays by his defense) away from beating Pittsburgh in the Wild Card round. If Dalton shows signs of struggling, Lewis may feel the pressure to come in with the hook and give the reigns to McCarren. Something else to watch for in Cincinnati this year.


Pittsburgh Steelers

Big Ben will lead the league in passing touchdowns and will win his first NFL MVP.

The Steelers couldn’t shake their string of bad luck that extended throughout the 2015 season. Injuries plagued the offense from the start of the season — Le’Veon Bell constantly missed time, Ben Roethlisberger was carted off the maxresdefaultfield three separate times (one of which caused him to miss a month), Antonio Brown suffered a concussion that ended his season, and back-up RB DeAngelo Williams was injured in week 17. Wide receiver Martavius Bryant missed games due to suspension, as well.

It only stands to reason that Pittsburgh’s 2016 campaign will end up a little better. With a healthy QB who has one of the best (if not the best) WRs in the game, the team already has playoff contender written all over it. Add Bell — when he returns from what looks like a 4 game suspension — and factor in the signing of tight end Ladarius Green, this high-powered offense has the look of one that could put 35 points up every time they take the field.

But staying healthy will be the key. Big Ben is just that — big — which makes him an easy target for linebackers and defensive ends who are coming for him every time he drops back in the pocket. Keep him healthy and the Steelers have the kind of offense that can keep them in any game, against any team — in September or in February. While the defense still needs to improve — they let Ryan Mallett beat them twice last season, Roethlisberger and the offense should give them a little wiggle room.


Baltimore Ravens

No Baltimore RB will rush for more than 800 yards.

Justin Forsett’s 2014 season, which included a trip to the Pro Bowl and a career-best 1,266 rushing yards, seems decades ago. Last year, the running back started only 10 games — still the second most in a season for his career — and was held to less than 700 yards on the ground. His injury plus the fact that Baltimore lost nearly every hi-res-ff31d793182fa66a755a12f6b2b86d27_crop_northsignificant offensive player in 2015 led to his drop in production.

The Ravens expect Terrance West to provide relief to Forsett in the backfield, as they alternate the two throughout the season in an effort to keep both sets of legs fresh. Quarterback Joe Flacco has recovered well from a week 11 knee injury that ended his 2015 year and Steve Smith is back at WR — although he’s a year older at 36. Other weapons Breshad Perriman and Ben Watson have the potential to make the Baltimore offense more lively and threatening than it was a year ago.

John Harbaugh had not experienced a losing record in his time in Baltimore until the 2015 season so it’d be easy to think he will have his Ravens team back in playoff contention this year. But this franchise doesn’t have the same feel as Ravens’ teams from the past. The defense isn’t as dominating and the running game isn’t striking fear into opponents. Joe Flacco has a high ceiling this year with his big and speedy weapons at WR and TE, but the running game and defense need to be much improved if this team is going to push the Steelers or Bengals.


Cleveland Browns

Robert Griffin III will get his career back on track in Hue Jackson’s offense.

Remember when RG3 led the Redskins to the playoffs and won Offensive Rookie of Year? No? Oh. Yeah, I guess it’s been a while. The 2012-13 season gave hope, promise, and wildly high expectations to Washington and those who rooted for Robert Griffin. After three seasons of what can only be described as sheer disappointment and -1a65761af413c19dfrustration in the nation’s capital, RG3 now embarks on a different chapter in his football career.

Usually Cleveland is not the place quarterbacks go to revive their careers, but this is the first season in which head coach Hue Jackson is there. Jackson comes to Cleveland after helping place the Cincinnati offense up near the top of the AFC. His history with quarterbacks and with innovative offensive play design gives Cleveland diehards reason to think a turnaround is forthcoming. And if turnarounds are in the cards, by all means RG3 — hop on board!

The Browns offense is really not one to be laughed at — although many experts are very dismissive of Cleveland this year. Running backs Duke Johnson and Isaiah Crowell should be a solid duo, driving the Cleveland ground game; and WR Josh Gordon has been reinstated — how many games he will play is still unclear. But my point is the cupboards in Cleveland are not bare. And that bodes well for Griffin. If he’s ever to get himself back on track, this looks like as good a spot as any.


Feedback is always welcome through the website in the comments box or on my Twitter feed — @brian22goodwin.


Author: Brian Goodwin

An educator for 15 years. I have a passion for sports and a passion for writing about sports. I'm very excited to run this blog and have conversations with people about relevant topics, mostly pertaining to sports but also in all aspects of life.

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