The Ravens went all out this past offseason to improve their offense. They signed three new receivers. They drafted a tight end and a quarterback in the first round. The consensus among fans is that these Ravens have improved since last season, when they were several plays away from their first playoff appearance in three years.
But guess what? The rest of the AFC North wasn’t sleeping. A year ago, the division wasn’t so competitive. But both the Cincinnati Bengals and the Pittsburgh Steelers have addressed major weaknesses as well.
The Bengals worked hard on their running game and have a new defensive coordinator in Teryl Austin, a former Ravens secondary coach.
Pittsburgh signed several new safeties to improve its run defense and cut down on the number of big plays allowed.
As for Cleveland, well, the Browns are still the Browns. They’re one of the youngest teams in the NFL and clearly lack the depth to be a division champion. But they do have two really good coordinators in Gregg Williams (defense) and Todd Haley (offense).
Which leaves the Ravens and Bengals trying to catch Pittsburgh, which has won three of the past four divisional titles. Cincinnati won in 2013 and 2015.
The Ravens? They last won in 2012.
“Everything that we’ve done up to this point, from a work standpoint, is behind us and yet it has our back,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “It’s what we stand on, and it’s our launching point, so we’re ready to go.”
The Ravens attempted to make up some ground on the defending AFC North champs by signing free-agent receivers Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead IV and drafting two tight ends, South Carolina’s Hayden Hurst and Oklahoma’s Mark Andrews.
Hurst will miss the first couple of weeks with a stress fracture in his foot, but the Ravens’ passing game should be better than it was a year ago, when they averaged only 189.4 yards per game, fourth worst in the NFL.
In all honesty, the passing attack couldn’t have been much worse. Yet with a few more third-down conversions on offense in crunch time, the Ravens would have made the playoffs.
Pittsburgh spent most of the offseason preparing for life after Ryan Shazier. The Steelers inside linebacker suffered a spinal injury in December, and the defense was never the same.
The Steelers finished with the No. 5 defense in the NFL, but they also missed a lot of tackles and gave up numerous big plays. After Shazier’s Dec. 4 injury, Pittsburgh gave up 38 points to the Ravens in Week 14, 27 to the New England Patriots in Week 15 and 45 to the Jacksonville Jaguars — all at home.
The Jaguars punished the Steelers by running for 164 yards in their divisional-round playoff game win, which made coach Mike Tomlin go out and find find run stoppers. Pittsburgh reportedly wanted Alabama linebacker Rashaan Evans in the first round, but the Tennessee Titans selected him first.
The Steelers eventually took Virginia Tech safety Terrell Edmunds with the No. 28 overall selection. They also signed former Green Bay Packers strong safety Morgan Burnett to a three-year deal.
One will start, and both will be on the field when Pittsburgh plays with six or seven defensive backs.
Regardless, the Steelers want to be more physical near the line of scrimmage, and both Burnett and Edmunds weigh close to 210 pounds. One could also play as a linebacker in certain situations, giving Pittsburgh more speed inside.
The Steelers also signed inside linebacker Jon Bostic. He isn’t a Shazier replacement, but he is a better option compared to what they had a season ago, especially playing with defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt.
Given the offensive weapons Pittsburgh should have on offense with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell and receiver Antonio Brown, it’s easy to understand why the Steelers are the favorites to win the division again. (Notably, Bell did not arrive at the team’s facility in time for practice Monday and has yet to sign his one-year franchise tender.)
The Bengals, 7-9 a year ago, tried to muscle up their running game during the offseason and build on the momentum of their two season-ending wins, the last of which knocked the Ravens out of playoff contention in Baltimore.
With quality running backs in Giovani Bernard and Joe Mixon, Cincinnati’s No. 31-ranked rushing offense last season was a clear indictment of its offensive line. So during the offseason, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis hired Frank Pollack as his new offensive line coach.
Pollack earned a reputation as one of the league’s top assistant coaches for building a great line in Dallas over the past five years. The Bengals also worked a trade with Buffalo for left tackle Cordy Glenn and drafted Ohio State center Billy Price in the first round.
The goal for Cincinnati is to be as physical along its offensive interior as the Bengals are on defense with linemen Carlos Dunlap, Andrew Billings, Geno Atkins and Jordan Willis.
Like Cleveland, the Bengals have one of the youngest teams in the NFL, but they have some offensive firepower with quarterback Andy Dalton, receivers A.J. Green and John Ross and tight end Tyler Eifert.
Austin has made some changes on defense, relying more on a 4-3 alignment up front and bringing more pressure. That style might help the Ravens; no team has caused quarterback Joe Flacco more problems than Cincinnati, and the former system had been in place for nearly a decade.
The Ravens will play the Bengals in Week 2 next Thursday, and both teams will still be working out some kinks, but it’s easier to build a defense than an offense. Two weeks later, the Ravens face the Steelers, who have won their past three games, including December’s shootout in which Roethlisberger threw for 506 yards in a 39-38 victory. Over three months earlier, Pittsburgh had run through the Ravens defense for a 26-9 win in Baltimore.
Maybe that changes now. Every AFC North team has had time to ponder and implement changes. In theory, they all should have gotten better, even Cleveland.
We’ll find out soon.