Offensive stability could go long way in deciding AFC North

A lot of talk about Ravens' losses, but 9 of their 11 offensive starters return.

Three of the four AFC North teams finished the 2014 season within the top half of the league in both points and yards per game. And if the offseason activity in the division is any indication, the AFC North should once again feature three pretty good offenses.

In a league where change is customary, two of the division’s top teams -- the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals -- will bring back virtually the same starting offense that they featured last season. Much has been made about the Ravens’ loss of offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, wide receiver Torrey Smith and tight end Owen Daniels, but the team gets nine of its 11 offensive starters back, which is significant in the salary cap era.

As for the Cleveland Browns, offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, quarterback Josh McCown, running back Duke Johnson, wide receivers Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline, tight end Rob Housler and offensive lineman Cam Erving are all in, while offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, quarterback Brian Hoyer, wide receiver Josh Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron are out.        

In Cleveland, change has been constant, which is one reason that they’ll once again be predicted by most pundits to finish last in the division. Meanwhile, the Ravens, Steelers and Bengals -- three teams that all finished within a game of each other last season with Pittsburgh (11-5) winning the division -- are expected to engage in a tight battle for AFC North supremacy.

And the winner might just be the team that’s able to build off the offensive numbers that it put up last year.

Featuring the division’s top passer (Ben Roethlisberger), rusher (Le’Veon Bell) and receiver (Antonio Brown), the Steelers finished second last year in yards per game (411.1) and seventh in points per game (27.3). Bell will start the season on a three-game suspension, but Pittsburgh didn’t lose a single offensive player of note, unless you’d count veteran wide receiver Lance Moore, who had all of 14 catches last year while being buried on the Steelers’ deep and talented wide receiver depth chart.

Thanks to arguably the best season of quarterback Joe Flacco’s career, the Ravens finished the 2014 campaign 12th in yards per game (364.9) and eighth in points (25.6). Daniels (48 catches) and Smith (11 touchdowns) were the Ravens’ second- and third-leading receivers last year and Flacco flourished under Kubiak’s tutelage. However, Flacco has raved about new offensive coordinator Marc Trestman, and the Ravens added rookies Breshad Perriman and Maxx Williams. And the backbone of last year’s offense -- the offensive line and running game -- return intact.

The Bengals were 15th last year in both points (22.8) and yards (348.0) per game. There remain persistent questions about quarterback Andy Dalton, but the healthy returns of Marvin Jones and Tyler Eifert, who will join A.J. Green and Mohamed Sanu, and the division’s best running back duo in Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, makes the Bengals’ offense extremely dangerous. Cincinnati also used its first two draft picks to bolster its offensive line, selecting Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher.

That’s not to say that the Steelers, Ravens and Bengals don’t face some offensive questions. Will Roethlisberger, who traditionally takes a pounding, be able to stay healthy for the Steelers? For the Ravens, can Flacco adjust seamlessly to another new offensive coordinator and get rookies Perriman and Williams involved? And can Dalton shake his inconsistent, mistake-prone ways and lead the Bengals to the next level?

Still, in the day and age of inevitable change in the NFL, the three top teams in the AFC have a lot more stability on the offensive side of the ball than you might think.

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