Burrow Injury Opens Up AFC North Division Title Race

Joe Burrow’s calf injury has dominated much of the talk during the AFC North’s preseason. The Cincinnati Bengals star quarterback’s health will cast a large shadow over what the back-to-back division champions can accomplish. If Burrow doesn’t miss much time, it is likely that Cincinnati will have the juice to climb the mountain once again.

Without Burrow, there will be a lot of unanswered questions for every team in the division. All four teams have hitched their wagons to new starting quarterbacks over the past six seasons. Cleveland dealt for Deshaun Watson despite his legal issues last season. Lamar Jackson is the most-tenured quarterback in the division, having his spot since 2018. Here’s what to like and not like about teams in the AFC North this season.

Bengals Hope to Kick in Door

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Joe Burrow

Cincinnati appeared to be headed to a second consecutive Super Bowl appearance last season before a late personal foul penalty helped Kansas City escape with a victory. The Bengals will feel good, once again, that they can compete if Burrow can return to his previous form. Cincinnati is mum on his status for the start of the season, but many think the right calf strain he suffered in training camp may see him sidelined for at least a week.

The Bengals have plenty of returning playmakers on offense. Wide receivers Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd give Burrow plenty of dangerous options in the passing game. Cincinnati also made a big splash in free agency, grabbing tackle Orlando Brown Jr. from the rival Kansas City Chiefs. 

When it comes to defense, the Bengals spent a large amount of draft capital trying to even things out. Cincinnati spent its first three picks on defensive end Myles Murphy, cornerback D.J. Turner and safety Jordan Battle. The Bengals are hot on the heels of the Chiefs and are looking to take the next step to win their second AFC North Championship in the past three years.

Can Lamar Jackson Stay Healthy?

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Lamar Jackson

The Ravens’ fortunes are tied to the health of their former MVP quarterback, Lamar Jackson, who has only played in 12 games in each of the last two seasons. When Jackson has played, Baltimore has had a lot of success. The Ravens are 45-16 in games that Jackson has started during his career.

This offseason, Baltimore brought in a new offensive coordinator, Todd Monken, to work with Jackson. What the Ravens are hoping is that they can create a new offensive system that will provide a more dynamic passing attack. In the past, Baltimore had built the offense around utilizing Jackson’s talents running the ball.

Baltimore also added several passing options. The Ravens are hoping that adding wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Odell Beckham Jr. will give them more explosiveness in the packing attack. Baltimore also drafted wide receiver Zay Flowers out of Boston College in the first round.

Not so Elementary, Watson

 

The Cleveland Browns angered many around the league when they dealt for Deshaun Watson and gave him a ton of guaranteed money. Watson, who was suspended for 10 games last year due to sexual misconduct allegations, brought as much baggage as he did potential. Cleveland struggled to find its identity without him.

Cleveland is starving to win the franchise’s first championship since the 1960s. The Browns also had to live through the growing pains in the game he did play. Watson finished 3-3 as a starter and threw seven touchdown passes and five interceptions. 

The Browns, who finished 7-10 last season, are hoping to avoid the AFC North division’s basement when the NFL schedule gets underway. In addition to Watson, the Browns can rely on star running back Nick Chubb. Cleveland didn’t have much wiggle room to improve in the draft.

The Browns had traded away their top three draft picks. Cleveland used the free agency period to shore up its defensive line. The Browns also acquired a top pass rusher by trading with Minnesota to add Za’Darius Smith.

Cleveland coach Kevin Stefanski is likely coaching for his job this season. During his first season with the Browns in 2020, Stefanski led the Browns to an 11-5 record and their first playoff win in 26 years. In the two seasons since then, Cleveland has gone 15-19 and seen major changes at quarterback and other key positions.

Pittsburgh Needs to Believe in Pickett

 

The Steelers are in an unusual position this season. Pittsburgh, which hasn’t had a losing season since 2003 and last finished in last place in 1988, is a team many think could finish in the cellar. But there are also many who believe the Steelers could surprise some people this season.

The belief in Pittsburgh’s ability to rally comes from the team’s proud history and continuity while being led by head coach Mike Tomlin. The Steelers were aggressive in the draft this season, unlike how they typically operate. Pittsburgh traded up to draft offensive lineman and Georgia product Broderick Jones.

The Steelers also added a legacy player, drafting Joey Porter Jr. out of Penn State. Porter’s dad also played for the Steelers and helped the team win Super Bowl XL. What will determine the fate of this particular team is how it evolves on offense. The Steelers were conservative during Pickett’s rookie year, not asking him to go deep too often. Pittsburgh is hoping that Pickett will be able to stretch defenses this year and open things up for running back Najee Harris. 

Health will also be a significant concern for Pittsburgh. The Steelers saw linebacker T.J. Watt miss a good portion of last season with an injury. Pittsburgh’s defense notably struggled in Watt’s absence. The Steelers can’t afford to have too many lapses during a schedule where all four teams in the division could be in the playoff race.