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Welcome To The Jungle – 2023 AFC North Preview

2023 AFC North Preview

Scott Logush

Associate Editor

With the 2023 NFL season right around the corner, it’s time to take a look at the league as a whole in this eight-part division preview series. We’re kicking this off by looking at a historically very competitive division, the AFC North. A division that was largely led by Ben Roethlisberger’s Steelers competing against a consistently elite Baltimore Ravens defense. Now, we’ve seen a changing of the guard with Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals coming off back-to-back division titles and deep playoff runs. Will we see more of the same, or will the North have some surprises? Let’s take a look.

Baltimore Ravens

The Baltimore Ravens have been a competitive team since the beginning of the 2000s with two Super Bowl victories and only four losing seasons this century. Head coach John Harbaugh has guided this team to numerous playoff victories, a Super Bowl championship in the 2012 season, and has only been below .500 twice in his career. With a history of elite defenses, and a dynamic quarterback under contract for the foreseeable future, the Ravens are looking to make a deep run in 2023 after their 2022 campaign finished with a wildcard round loss to the division rival Cincinnati Bengals. 

If the Ravens are going to make some noise in the playoffs, their situational defense needs to improve. They had a -49 point differential in the fourth quarter! Baltimore scored 86 fourth-quarter points this year, while 135 points were scored against them. For context, Baltimore scored 66 first-quarter points, 128 second-quarter points, and 87 third-quarter points while posting point differentials of +17, +36, and +24 respectively. They cannot afford to let games slip away like this, for a team with a history of great defenses this needs to change. They also need young talent like Rock Ya-Sin, David Ojabo, Odafe Oweh, and Kyle Hamilton to step up and help the defense return to form. The signing of Jadeveon Clowney significantly boosts the floor of this edge group. A lot of pressure falls on the shoulders of Lamar Jackson and new offensive coordinator Todd Monken, as this will be the first time since his rookie season that Jackson does not have Greg Roman as his offensive coordinator. It’s not a lock that this transition goes smoothly. 

Cincinnati Bengals

The back-to-back AFC North Champions have done a lot of reloading this offseason. The target is on their back, and they are the ones to beat for the foreseeable future in the division, and have established themselves as a contender in the AFC for years to come. They do have some major question marks heading into 2023, with the most important one being on the right side of their offensive line. With the signing of Orlando Brown Jr, and his incredibly well-documented desire to only play left tackle, Jonah Williams and La’el Collins head into a position battle. Both coming off injuries, with questions of whether Collins will even be able to play to start the season as he began training camp on the PUP list, and if Williams can make the switch to the right side of the line after playing his entire NFL career at left tackle. Sure, switching sides of the line happens in the NFL, but the ones who succeed are usually fresh out of college and not coming off an impactful knee injury. Williams is easily one of the players in the league under the most pressure, as his second contract and career trajectory could very easily be riding on this season.

The team is also working to replace Jesse Bates and Vonn Bell at the safety spots, relying on 2022 first-round selection Dax Hill to take on a large workload increase from the 130 defensive snaps he played in 2022 as a rookie. This anticipated workload increase makes Hill a real breakout candidate for 2023. This secondary as a unit is facing major questions, and the safety switching puts more pressure on the corners as well with Chidobe Awuzie, who entering the final year of his deal, Cam Taylor-Britt, and Mike Hilton holding it down in the slot. With a strong defensive front with Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard holding down the edges with Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt holding it down at linebacker, the Bengals are poised to make another playoff run, are easily the front-runners in this division, and are set to showcase that they have the highest ceiling of any team in the AFC North, providing Burrow doesn’t miss too much time with his calf injury.

Cleveland Browns

This seems to be a consistent trend. The Browns make a splashy move in the offseason, the hype gets out of control, and then they continue to spin in circles like a canoe with only one oar on the side. We saw it with Odell Beckham Jr, and then history repeated itself with Deshaun Watson. The next four, and likely more, years of the Cleveland Browns are riding on Deshaun Watson and if he rebounds. With a fully guaranteed contract, no matter what happens Cleveland is stuck with him and Watson was not even close to playing as the best quarterback on the Cleveland Browns. He put the ball in harm’s way 4.1% of the time, the worst turnover-worthy play rate of his career by .4%. When Watson was under pressure 27.4% of the time, it turned into a sack. That figure is the worst of his career by over five percentage points. They have the pieces on offense, a great offensive line, one of the best backs in the league with Nick Chubb, and some legit receiving weapons in Amari Cooper and David Njoku. Now, it’s up to Watson to put it together and work back toward what he was in 2020, a top-five quarterback and even a Kirk Cousins level quarterback would be a massive upgrade in 2023.

They made real efforts to improve their defense and it shows. Last year their front was just Myles Garrett and others. Now they have a true unit out there. Garrett is easily one of the top-three edge defenders in the league and has a strong case for the best. Having back-to-back years with over 70 pressures and 16 sacks speaks for itself. The Browns swapped multiple late-round picks with the Minnesota Vikings to acquire edge defender Za’Darius Smith, a great option when healthy and capable of putting up 93 pressures when healthy and had 78 last year with the Vikings. Smith also provided some pass rush versatility and is able to line up over centers and guards inside to cause all kinds of chaos. The Browns also went out and signed Dalvin Tomlinson to a four-year $57-million contract to hold down the middle of their front. Shelby Harris is an amazing signing and is significantly better than a mid-August signing. This front has gone from one of the worst in the league to an underrated one very quickly. The Browns have all the tools to make the playoffs this year, but I still have my doubts about them capitalizing. Their history is enough for me to say that they’ll float around .500 and might be a fringe playoff team.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers are a team that refuses to roll over and die. After heading into their bye-week with a 2-6 record, it seemed that Mike Tomlin’s ridiculous streak of .500 or better seasons was coming to an end. Then after the bye week, Kenny Pickett arrived, leading multiple game-winning drives and late-game heroics. Ultimately leading the Steelers to a 9-8 record, narrowly missing out on a playoff appearance, and keeping Mike Tomlin’s streak alive. The team enters 2023 with the goal of determining if Kenny Pickett is a franchise guy, and their offseason reflects this. 

The Steelers lost two notable pieces of their secondary in cornerback Cameron Sutton and former first-round safety Terrell Edmunds. They managed to address these needs through signing cornerback Patrick Peterson, and safety Keanu Neal. They also drafted Penn State cornerback Joey Porter Jr, son of long-time Steelers linebacker, with the 32nd pick in the draft. With these additions, the secondary will improve or at a minimum be around the same level it was last season. Pittsburgh also overhauled their linebacker room, as they cut Myles Jack while letting Robert Spillane and Devin Bush walk in free agency. They brought in Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts in hopes of bringing better play and more production to their defense. They also added some talent on offense by acquiring Allen Robinson II from the Rams in a seventh-round pick swap and the Rams retaining some of the contract. They also brought in guard Issac Seumalo from the Eagles as a free agent. Their major investment came in the first round of the draft, when the Steelers picked offensive tackle Broderick Jones out of Georgia. Improving the offensive line and secondary were the two major priorities this offseason, and both groups look to take steps forward in 2023. It seems like Pittsburgh has a floor of .500 with Mike Tomlin as their head coach, and with the improvements to their offensive line and defense, they could hit a ceiling of 11 wins and have a firm hold on a wildcard spot in 2023.

This division could not have a clearer obvious winner if Burrow was fully healthy. With that being said, even if he misses a couple of regular season games I’m still confident in Cincinnati winning. Burrow is set to miss “several weeks” according to head coach Zac Taylor, meaning regular season games are on the table. Their September and early October schedule is pretty manageable, with their hardest game being against the Ravens in week two. Even without Burrow, the Bengals should be 3-3 at worst through six weeks, and likely will be 4-2 or 5-1. This is a battle between Pittsburgh and Baltimore, with the Steelers keeping their objectively bad offensive coordinator and the Ravens opting for a change with the firing of Greg Roman. Lamar Jackson has missed a significant amount of time in the last two seasons for Baltimore, making durability a reasonable concern. Ultimately, I’m taking the Steelers to narrowly come out on top. This leaves the Browns in the basement yet again and for good reason. Watson showed no signs of life last season, and although the team made some positive changes on defense, you need to score points to win. 

Standings Prediction:

  1. Cincinnati Bengals
  2. Pittsburgh Steelers
  3. Baltimore Ravens
  4. Cleveland Browns
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