- Cleveland’s splash moves (and brash young QB) have turned the Browns into everybody’s hot team. It may be a seismic shift for the franchise, but Pittsburgh and Baltimore have been perennial powers for a reason, and their key strengths—Ben Roethlisberger for the former, a complex, cagey defensive scheme for the latter—remain. The North just got a lot more compelling, and competitive.
The Browns are now the AFC North’s sexiest team and odds-on division favorites—and no, Hell hasn’t frozen over and pigs still don’t fly. This club has simply, and quickly, laid an appealing foundation built on personality, pomp and, most importantly, a lot of talent. Meanwhile, traditional AFC North heavyweights Pittsburgh and Baltimore seemingly have taken steps back. The Steelers are minus two of their three Killer B’s, with Antonio Brown now a Raider and Le’Veon Bell a Jet. The Ravens have seen their vaunted defense get pruned. Yes, the release of Eric Weddle, as expected, made way for one of this year’s big-name free agent safeties, Earl Thomas, upgrading the secondary. But the front seven has been cut nearly in half, with Terrell Suggs, Za’Darius Smith and C.J. Mosley all departing. (And unsung defensive lineman Brent Urban remains unsigned.)
But you don’t become a perennial contender like the Steelers and Ravens have been over the last 10 years without always having a plan in place. Which is why no one from these organizations is sitting around shell-shocked right now. Maybe the Steelers and Ravens didn’t know the Browns would stockpile talent so quickly, but they almost certainly did know their own rosters would endure painful reductions.
Interestingly, those reductions occurred in the teams’ areas of greatest strength: offensive playmakers for the Steelers and pass rushers for the Ravens. That’s because these franchises believe the core of those strengths are strong enough to endure.
For Pittsburgh, the core is Ben Roethlisberger. It’s still rarely talked about, but he is football’s most evolved quarterback. Once strictly a sandlot player, he prolonged his career by blossoming into a cerebral field general. The Steelers more than any other team spread out into empty sets, then let their QB read the field before the snap and get the ball out quickly. They have run simple plays off this approach, which was most prudent given the talent around Big Ben.
With that talent now diminished, offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner must tighten up the scheme and aim to win more through design. The Steelers are betting that, with a sharp veteran like Roethlisberger, they can soundly install a more detailed scheme. It won’t be easy—Fichtner and his staff must adjust—but ultimately, it’s a plan built around a superstar QB, which has always been good NFL business. Having the AFC’s best offensive line keeps all design possibilities in play. And when the designs don’t work, Roethlisberger still has the capacity to conjure that Big Ben sandlot magic a few times a game. How goes Roethlisberger, so go the Steelers.
For the Ravens, the foundation is not their front seven personnel, but their complex, disguise- and blitz-oriented defensive scheme. John Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Wink Martindale are attack-minded coaches who take pride in teaching men to play multiple positions. This lends an activeness and diversity to the front seven, positioning players to overachieve.
Much of it comes down to executing disguised blitzes, which require a strong secondary. That’s why this part of the roster has not just been maintained, but enhanced. Earl Thomas costs more than predecessor Eric Weddle because Thomas can still run and consistently tackle in space. Like Weddle, he’s a cagey veteran who, along with expensive 2017 free-agent pickup Tony Jefferson, can play either safety spot. (We think of Thomas as a traditional centerfield free safety, which he is, but in his last few years as a Seahawk he got more and more snaps in the box, especially in passing situations, where he could better match up to seam patterns and crossing routes.)
Many of Baltimore’s blitzes come out of zone structures that play out like man-to-man. And so the other key is having corners who can match up to a variety of receivers. That’s why in 2017 the Ravens also drafted Marlon Humphrey in the first round and brought aboard ageless veteran Brandon Carr. In this 2019 offseason, they presumably refused to pay top linebacker C.J. Mosley north of $16 million, but they still decided to keep right corner Jimmy Smith for one more year on a cap number of $15.8 million. They also signed slot specialist Tavon Young to a new three-year, $25.8 million deal. That’s four quality corners and two high-priced safeties for a defense that just let its front seven get depleted. Clearly the Ravens brass believes that as long as this D has talent on the back end, it can win through scheme on the front end.
Correlating with a strong defense is a sound running game, which the Ravens have also invested in, not just by trading Joe Flacco and putting all eggs in Lamar Jackson’s basket, but by signing a classic, stable three-down back in Mark Ingram. Collectively, Baltimore’s 2019 offseason has painted a clear, still-impressive picture.
Are the Browns still the worthy new favorites of the AFC North? Sure—their roster is very appealing. But the Steelers are built around their Hall of Fame quarterback and the Ravens around their aggressive, innovative defensive scheme. Neither of those entities can be expected to decline in 2019. Which means neither of these teams should be expected to take a step back.
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