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AFC North : Fresh or Stale?

This piece has been written by guest writer, Alasdair Jackson.

At the start of the 2018 season, the AFC North could have been seen as a division of perennials.

You had the Baltimore Ravens. Perennially fantastic on defense but only because they had to make up for a perennially average offense. John Harbaugh takes some moving as a head coach. At the time of writing, he’s survived 14 Watford managers in his stint since 2008. This long spell is of course defined by a high of bringing home the Lombardi in Super Bowl, against his brother Jim and his 49ers.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are in a similar vain. Mike Tomlin has spent over a quarter of his 46 years alive at the helm of the Steelers. His long spell, like Harbaugh’s, is defined by bringing home the Lombardi, this time in 2009. As far as this NFL fan can remember, that wasn’t against his brother but answers on a postcard are welcomed.

The third team would be the Cincinnati Bengals. They also had a long serving head coach, by the name of Marvin Lewis. He was just embarking on his 16th season as Bengals head coach, and had taken them to the playoffs 5 of the last 7 seasons, losing in the Wild Card round each time. Marvin Lewis can’t boast a ring like the other two, and can no longer boast an NFL head coaching position either.

Rounding up the division, we have the Cleveland Browns. It’s probably best not to talk about what the Browns had perennially been over the course of the above 3 coaches’ careers. But I will say one thing, this piece ends much better than it begins for those in Believeland.

Starting this coming season the division will have undergone a minor overhaul, and with many of those stalwarts only hanging by a thread there’s an interesting balance of stale, established, and fresh.

Stale

The old guard in Pittsburgh

Everything seems fine in Pittsburgh when they’re winning. However last season they didn’t do that. With a roster loaded with talent, despite having lost arguably their most talented single player, those in black and gold failed to reach the playoffs.

The offensive unit of the Triple Bs (Ben, Brown, Bell) have been torn apart. Le’Veon Bell is awaiting a huge payday in the off season with running backs everywhere looking to secure new contracts based off the value he receives.

Antonio Brown is talking as if he’s already got one foot out of the door following a week 17 inactive status. The Steelers would greatly miss his 15 touchdowns and 1297 yards next season, although the fresh spark of life for the Steel City is the continued performance of WR2 JuJu Smith-Schuster. That inactive status came about after a heated argument with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

6976B37D-96D6-4FCA-9A0A-F15C3F17840BBen himself has come under fire for public airing his team’s dirty laundry on his radio show on 93.7 The Fan, which airs one hour prior to his coach Mike Tomlin’s press conference.

Tomlin has had to address this in that press conference saying “I’m not going to sit up here week-in and week-out and respond to things that Ben says on his radio show”. The question of Tomlin’s dressing room control and ability to manage culture has been raised by Steelers legend Hines Ward – calling the team’s culture a “circus” bemoaning the fact that “we’re talking more about the Steelers off the field than on the field”.

Longevity and stability is great, but things degrade, and for me the Steelers are looking stale.

Cincy QB situation

Ninety-Nine Yards welcomed Marc Sessler recently to its podcast, and Marc’s home podcast Around the NFL coined a term called The Dalton Scale. It argues Andy Dalton is the borderline between having your franchise quarterback, and needing to look elsewhere. The fact that Marvin Lewis went one and done five times in seven years rested heavy on the shoulders of Dalton, appearing in 4 of those losses whilst throwing 1 TD, 6 INTs and losing 2 fumbles. Due to Dalton being the borderline the Bengals have been in a tough situation of not knowing whether to stick, or twist with their QB drafted back in 2011.

The Bengals will go into the 2019 season without Marvin Lewis as their head coach and this could impact Dalton’s safety as signal caller. Whilst a perfect replacement may not result from their draft picks this year, don’t be surprised if a QB is either drafted or invested in in free agency to put pressure on ginger gun slinger. With no added pressure on Dalton, an injury prone offence reliant on AJ Green, Tyler Eifert, and the admittedly fresh Tyler Boyd, will start to look very stale.

Fresh

Flacco/Jackson

If it weren’t for the mid-season emergence of Lamar Jackson transforming the Baltimore Ravens in lieu of an injured Joe Flacco, I might be sat here writing about a gutsy playoff run by division winners the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Ravens went 6-1 with Jackson under center to close out the 2018 season, and this breathed new life in an offense that staggered at times under Flacco. Quite often unconventional and even spontaneous, Jackson provides a threat with his legs whilst the big question lies in his passing ability. After all he only threw for 6 touchdowns all year. He did however put together 695 rushing yards and 5 TDs in his rookie year out of Louisville. Lamar Jackson blew the cobwebs away for the Ravens offense and it’ll be interesting to see how the team handle Flacco’s situation going into the new season, and whether with more tape and more awareness of his play, opposing teams can more successfully game plan to Jackson neutralizing his threat.

Those Brownies

The freshest of all situations comes in Cleveland where finally some momentum and positivity seems to reign. They’ve finally found their franchise quarterback in the swaggering Baker Mayfield who really found his feet after Hue Jackson left the building. Baker is one of a host of young players on both sides of the ball who have this Browns team looking exciting. Leading that list are Nick Chubb, Myles Garrett and Jabril Peppers.

Chubb fell 4 yards short of a 1000 yard season averaging 5.2 yards per carry as his workload grew towards the end of the season. On the other side of the ball the monster Garrett racked up 13.5 sacks in a huge season for the edge rusher.

I said earlier this article would end much better than it started for the Cleveland Browns but I’m going to put my neck on the line, and say that the AFC North will belong to Cleveland next year – they’ll play in January for the first time since the Steelers beat them in the 2002 Wild Card round scoring 22 points in the final quarter to edge it 36-33.

Alasdair Jackson has written this as a guest writer for NinetyNineYards.com. You can follow Alasdair on Twitter – @_AKCJ

Photo credit : Pro Football Focus.com

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