AFC North Preview

Story posted September 7, 2021 in Sports, CommRadio by Emma Holtz

Grab your fantasy football buddies and queue the NFL on CBS theme - the National Football League regular season returns this week. The preseason chapter officially closed on Sunday, Aug. 29 and teams now pivot their attention towards Week 1.

The AFC North division intrigues sports analysts and casual fans alike. With plenty of offseason shifts and certain players back to fighting form, let’s unpack what the division has to offer going into the 2021 season.

Do the Pittsburgh Steelers “steel” got it?

Sighs of relief rang across Steelers Nation when Pittsburgh drafted Alabama running back Najee Harris with its No. 24 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. As of the 2020 season, the Steelers were notoriously lacking in its run game. Early preseason glimpses at Harris’ chemistry with Pittsburgh’s offense look promising.

39-year-old quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be at the helm once again amongst rumors swirling about his athletic ability.

Roethlisberger started the 2020 season strong with accurate passing both close and deep down the field, but slowly tailed off as the season reached its halfway point. He favored “dink and dunk” passes, or short downfield passes for a limited number of yards.

Opponents began to read the Steelers’ predictable pass-heavy offense and could easily disrupt the play. Roethlisberger ranked just outside ESPN’s top 20 total quarterback ratings at No. 22 for the 2020 season.

Roethlisberger has a strong wide receiver corps consisting of Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson, as well as the addition of former Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth in the 2021 NFL Draft.

Offensive confidence may be questioned, but the Black and Gold excel on the defensive side of the ball. Three Steelers made CBS Sports’ senior writer Pete Prisco’s Top 100 NFL Players list for 2021: linebacker T.J. Watt at No. 6, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick at No. 60 and defensive tackle Cameron Heyward at No. 65.

Both Watt and Fitzpatrick are potentially on the brink of big budget contract extensions, and the decision to not sign cornerback Joe Haden back for the 2022 season opens up salary cap space.

However, the 2021 season wipes the slate clean as the Steelers’ offseason decisions are about to be tested against the Buffalo Bills at 1 p.m. on Sept. 12.

The Baltimore Ravens’ injury chronicles continue

The main story straight out of Baltimore is the injury-riddled offense. Running back J.K. Dobbins tore his ACL in preseason, which is a major blow to the organization’s offense. Dobbins rushed for 805 yards and nine touchdowns as a rookie in 2020.

The Ravens also placed wide receiver Miles Boykin and their 2021 first-round pick, wideout Rashod Bateman on injury reserve.

The absence of major offensive weapons for Baltimore means more pressure on its quarterback Lamar Jackson. To fantasy football managers, Jackson is a vital quarterback to pick for a fantasy team because of Jackson’s ability to run out of the pocket and gain rushing yards.

Last season, Jackson faced pressure both from the inside and outside of the Ravens’ organization to perform in the playoffs. The Tennessee Titans defeated the Ravens in the 2020 Divisional Round.

Now more than ever, coaches and fans will look to Jackson to keep the Ravens’ playoff hopes alive from Week 1 and on.

Will the Cleveland Browns Reach No. 1 status?

Buzz surrounds the Browns as the potential AFC North favorite for the 2021 season. Cleveland has plenty of talent at its disposal. Running back Nick Chubb and wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. are two major names thrown around as main weapons for quarterback Baker Mayfield.

Chubb rushed for an impressive 1067 yards in 2020 and is a fantasy football favorite due to his consistent production.

Beckham Jr., fresh off of a torn ACL injury, is back on the field for the Browns and has impressed coaches in training camp. Mayfield’s variety of passing and rushing talent could be a looming threat that lingers throughout the season.

The Browns’ defense found a gem in defensive end Myles Garrett, who had 33 solo tackles during the 2020 season. Offenses should be intimidated by Garrett’s drive and ability to get after the offense quickly and efficiently.

The Cincinnati Bengals have hopes of clawing back into the division

The season-ending injury that quarterback Joe Burrow suffered in 2020 dampened the hopes of Bengals fans across the country. On top of injuries comes a disappointing 4-11-1 2020 season record, which faded the Bengals into the background of AFC North prediction discussions.

The Bengals have a “that was then, this is now” mentality with notable names such as running back Joe Mixon projected to break out this season.

After rushing for over 1000 yards in 2018 and 2019, Joe Mixon saw a decrease in 2020 production because of competition with running back Giovani Bernard.

Now that Bernard found a home in Tampa Bay with the Buccaneers, Mixon could become a primary target for Burrow in the 2021 season.

The Bengals have not had a winning season since 2015, but are looking to prove critics wrong as the 2021 season ramps up.


Emma Holtz is a second-year majoring in public relations. To contact her, email exh5337@psu.edu.

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