NFL Countdown #3 and A 2021 Preview for AFC North Teams that Didn't Suck Last Year
NFL Countdown #3: If you leave out the Cincinnati Bengals, the AFC North was a juggernaut in 2020. The three remaining teams made the playoffs, and none of them won more than 4 games within the division.
Happy Labor Day! In 2001, the NFL decided to start their season every year directly after Labor Day weekend. It would have been nice to have the day off from work after the first football Sunday every year, but I guess I’ll just continue carrying that Budweiser and buffalo wing hangover into the lab next week. In other labor news, the NFL Players’ Union and the NFL reached an agreement on their 2020-2030 collective bargaining agreement (CBA) on March 15th, 2020. Both parties were in a bit of a rush to get the deal signed before the start of the new “league year”, and ballots were mailed to players six days before the NBA announced it would be suspending its season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Three days after the NBA stopped playing games, the new CBA was ratified without any provisions regarding the burgeoning pandemic.
The 2020-2030 CBA was eventually amended to give players certain rights regarding opt-outs and other concerns spurred by the global pandemic, but the original agreement gave fans what they needed during such a chaotic time: more football. The new CBA opened the door for the NFL to add the 17th game that we’re getting this year, and added a seventh playoff spot for both conferences that we saw for the first time last year. Thanks to the new third wildcard slot, we saw three teams from the same division reach the playoffs in 2020: the AFC North’s Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, and Cleveland Browns.
Steelers Recap & 2021 Outlook
In Week 13 of the 2020 season, everyone outside of Pittsburgh joined together to let out a collective “I told you so”. The Steelers carried an undefeated record into their matchup with the Washington Football Team, going 11-0 while the whole football-watching world stared in disbelief. Ben Roethlisberger was older and in worse shape than we’ve ever seen him, but somehow the Steelers just kept winning games. Their defense was incredible, but shouldn’t have been enough to give Pittsburgh the best record in the NFL. Everything came crashing down for the Steelers in their Week 13 matchup with the lowly Washington Football Team, notching their first loss of the season and then dropping three of their last four to the Bills, Bengals, and Browns. Pittsburgh’s late-season slide was best exemplified by their 28-0 first-quarter implosion against the Browns in the first week of the playoffs.
The Pittsburgh Steelers showed their true face in the back half of the 2020 season, and I don’t think they made the right moves in the offseason that can get them back to where they were in the first half. Mike Tomlin is a top-5 coach in the NFL and hasn’t had a losing season yet, but I don’t see the Steelers doing much more than sitting above .500. The Steelers offensive line was downright awful last season, and they managed to lose two of their better linemen to retirement and free agency. They added a couple decent players in free agency, most notably my favorite player from 2020: Rashaad Coward. If I wasn't a Packer fan, I would have been so happy to get a jersey that had #69 and "Coward" on the back.
The Steelers skipped over their most glaring need in the first round of the 2021 draft, electing to pick up a runningback that will be behind one of the worst lines in football. Drafting a first-round runningback is almost never a good organizational decision, but it’s a lot worse when they won’t have any room to run – Najee Harris is going to get the ball a ton, but their efficiency in the run game is capped by a bad offensive line. The passing game might be good thanks to their trio of passcatchers in JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, and Chase Claypool, but Ben Roethlisberger needs to get the ball to them. Big Ben looked mortality in the eye for the first time last season, and decided now was the best time to figure out how to take care of his body. If Ben can follow the TB12 Method and reverse 39 years of punishment his body has taken, maybe he can be decent in 2021?
Ravens Recap & 2021 Outlook
Ever since Lamar Jackson took over in Baltimore, Ravens games have been appointment television. Instead of shying away from drafting Lamar Jackson or making him to play in the same offensive system that worked with Joe Flacco, the Ravens took a big gamble by choosing Jackson and then shifting their entire offensive philosophy to fit his skills. We’ve seen a ton of athletic quarterbacks make it to the NFL and fail to live up to the hype simply because their offensive coordinator was forcing a square peg into a round hole – Greg Roman had the stones to change the shape of the hole and allow Lamar Jackson to do what he does best. This gamble paid off in Lamar's first full season as a starter to the tune of a Baltimore sweep of the AP’s 2019 seasonal awards: Lamar Jackson won the MVP, John Harbaugh won Coach of the Year, and Greg Roman won Assistant Coach of the Year.
Lamar threw a touchdown on 9% of his passing attempts in 2019, a mark that has only been hit by four other quarterbacks since the NFL-AFL merger. This insane efficiency dropped down to a nice 6.9% in 2020, which was still good for third among quarterbacks. The passing game efficiency in Baltimore is heavily predicated on the defense’s increased attention on Lamar’s legs that opens up windows downfield. Lamar Jackson’s ability to run with the ball or sit back in the pocket waiting for windows to open is heavily predicated on solid offensive line play, which we can’t really guarantee in 2021. We can leave the Jackson/Vick debate for another day, but everyone can agree that Lamar Jackson is a top-2 running quarterback in the history of the NFL. Even with his incredible ability to find holes and slip through defenses, I’m worried about Lamar’s prospects for this coming season.
The Ravens lost their center, right guard, and left guard this offseason. Thanks to Greg Roman’s fitting of the offense to Lamar Jackson’s skillset, the Ravens have one of the hardest playbooks for a lineman to pick up and excel in quickly. Baltimore runs a ton of option plays that confuse defenses and open holes for Lamar to either run through or get the ball to a teammate to exploit, but everything requires offensive lineman that know their assignment well enough to react when defenses vary their fronts. Sure, Lamar could be great at leaving the pocket and throwing downfield from a different vantage point, but we just haven’t seen that too much thus far. In addition to the offensive line play stifling Baltimore’s passing attack, the Ravens are still searching for a competent wide receiver. They have been throwing the kitchen sink at the position over the past few years, even pulling Dez Bryant out of retirement to try and get a ball-winner. The Ravens let four WRs walk this offseason, and replaced them with two draft picks and Sammy Watkins. There’s a ton of hype for rookie Rashod Bateman to step up and fill that need in the Ravens’ offense, but there was also a lot of hype for Marquise Brown to do the same when he was drafted 25th overall in 2019.
The Ravens will be a scary opponent in 2021, but I don’t think they have a shot at the Super Bowl until they can figure out how to make defenses afraid of them passing the ball. The Ravens have been uninspired in the playoffs with Lamar Jackson under center because in a win or go home game, opponents can really sell out to limit Jackson’s production on the ground. However, if Greg Roman can figure out how to make this a viable passing game that doesn’t rely so heavily on their run game, the sky is the limit for Lamar Jackson and the Ravens.
Browns Recap & 2021 Outlook
What a ride the Browns have been on since rejoining the NFL in 1999. They were consistently the saddest, most disorganized team in all of American professional sports. When I think about the past twenty years in Cleveland, I see a man with a paper bag over his head and over a dozen quarterback names on the back of his custom jersey. Go ahead, close your eyes. You see him too, right?
Ever since their 0-16 season under Hue Jackson, the Browns have been kicking and clawing their way up in the NFL ranks. Baker Mayfield was selected first overall in the 2018 draft, and became the perfect mascot for the team fighting to just find some stable ground to build on. He’s had his ups and downs in Cleveland, but the downs haven’t been too bad. At his worst, Baker is probably a top-20 quarterback. At his best, Baker is a phenomenal game manager and somewhere inside the top-10. Outside of his play, Baker has been the captain that this young squad has needed to play cohesively and get the most out of their talent. His team decided to bring in Kevin Stefanski ahead of the 2020 season, and he was named the AP’s Head Coach of the Year for his first campaign in Cleveland.
The Browns’ franchise quarterback has played with three different head coaches and offensive schemes since Baker joined the team in 2018, so this year I’m looking to see what continuity does for this franchise. The Browns lost a ton of key pieces of their defense, but made a few sideways moves in free agency and the draft that should keep the ship on course. Jadeveon Clowney will be a player to keep an eye on – he’s been bad on the edge as the best passrusher on his team, but with Myles Garrett on the field he should get some favorable matchups. On offense, the number one offensive line in 2020 stays intact and should continue to dominate the line of scrimmage in 2021. The Browns have the best runningback duo in the league with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt bringing the thunder and lightning, and should have a great receiving corps with Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. coming back from a torn ACL last year. The Browns are expected to have the third easiest schedule this season (Sharp Football Analysis), and face mostly teams that are better defending the pass than the run. At the very least, the Browns will be fun this season. All my Browns fan friends are just happy to see their team win a couple games, but I think they have the pieces in place and the continuity to just keep getting better.