Are The Bengals The New King Of The Jungle In The AFC North?
Since 2015 the top spot in the AFC North had been the exclusive domain of the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers until injuries decimated the Ravens and age took down the Steelers, resulting in the Cincinnati Bengals ascending to the top of the AFC North Standings. Can the defending AFC Champs keep the magic alive and make it back-to-back division titles or is it one and done for Cincinnati?
2021 Record: 10-7
The Bengals rode the powerful and accurate right arm of quarterback Joe Burrow all the way to the Super Bowl last season. With the additions the front office made to this group in the offseason, look for this offense to be even better in 2022. Cincinnati has possibly the best trio of young receivers in the NFL with Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd all having a chance to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards this season. Hayden Hurst comes over in free agency to replace the departed C.J. Uzomah at tight end. Running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine are also valuable targets in the passing attack for Burrow.
Mixon’s 1,205 yards in 2021 paced a running attack that was just 23rd in ypg last season. Perine added 246 yards at nearly 4.5 yards per rush in a relief role. Look for much bigger things from this running game in 2022 because Mixon is an elite back and Perine is a capable backup that were limited by a poor offensive line. That won’t be the case this season. The Bengals were active in free agency to address the line issues. Cincinnati added a pair of proven interior linemen in center Ted Karras and guard Alex Cappa. The icing on the cake was the addition of former Cowboy right tackle La’el Collins. Add that trio to holdover left tackle Jonah Williams and 2022 4th round pick Cordell Volson and the Bengals look like they should have an offensive line that will not only create holes in the running game but keep the pass rush off Joe Burrow.
This squad is the definition of a no name defense. Very few household names, not a ton of blue-chip players, but quality personnel on all three levels and an excellent defensive coordinator in Lou Anarumo. The results are a defense where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. This Bengals defense played better as the 2021 season rolled along and this unit should be even better in 2022. Trey Hendrickson led the pass rush from his right defensive end spot with a career high 14 sacks while Sam Hubbard chipped with 7.5 sacks from the other end spot. B.J. Hill and D.J. Reader are stout run defenders on the interior of the line with Hill adding some inside pass rush. The capable linebacker corps is led by Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt. The secondary played well during Cinci’s run through the postseason but there could be some cause for concern with this group. The safeties are the strength of this group led by the Jessie Bates and Von Bell with rookie 1st round pick Dax Hill seeing time in three safety looks. Chidobe Awuzie is solid at the right corner spot along with Mike Hilton in the slot. The concern is left corner where Eli Apple continues to struggle. Look for 2022 2nd round pick Cam Taylor-Britt to take the starting spot from Apple once he is fully recovered from abdominal surgery.
The Bengals inability to finish drives with touchdowns in the playoffs coupled with his strong and accurate leg made a star out of Evan McPherson in the postseason. McPherson will return to handle the kicking chores. Kevin Huber will again be the Bengals punter. Return duties will be shared by Trent Taylor and Chris Evans.
Many are expecting a step back from the Bengals due to the Ravens being healthy and the hangover teams often experience the season after losing the Super Bowl. I don’t anticipate that to be the case. The Bengals shored up their weakness on offense by addressing the offensive line, putting that unit in line to matchup with the NFL’s best and most explosive units. The names may not be on the tips of everyone’s tongue, but the Bengals have a very strong defense that doesn’t have many weaknesses. Despite the 3rd toughest schedule in the league this season, look for a big season from Cincinnati; one that includes a deep run through the playoffs and perhaps another trip to the Super Bowl.
Prediction: 12-5, 1st Place in the AFC North
2021 Record: 8-9
Injuries short circuited the 2021 Ravens offense before it ever got out of the blocks. Losing your top two running backs before opening day for a run heavy offense has a way of doing that. J.K. Dobbins returns from a torn ACL to lead a stable of backs that includes former Falcon and Panther Mike Davis, Kenyan Drake, Justice Hill and Gus Edwards, once he comes off of injured reserve. If Dobbins is fully recovered, this crew of running backs along with former MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson should be able to elevate this rushing attack back near the top of the league’s rankings. A strong offensive line anchored by left tackle Ronnie Staley and 2022 1st round pick, center Tyler Linderbaum should open plenty of holes for the runners and protect Jackson well when he drops back to pass.
The concern here is the passing game. Jackson seemed to regress throwing the ball last season without his usual dominant running attack and with “Hollywood” Brown being moved to Arizona in the offseason there is not a large array of top targets for Jackson. Rashod Bateman is an emerging star at wide receiver but behind him on the depth chart is a nondescript group of receivers. Tight End Mark Andrews will be a key cog in the passing attack and security blanket for Jackson.
As much as injuries short circuited the offense in 2021, injures took an even bigger toll on the defense. Former defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s blitz happy scheme is reliant on quality corners who can excel in man coverage. With Marcus Peters missing the entire season because of a torn ACL and Marlon Humphrey missing five games with a torn pectoral muscle Baltimore didn’t have the caliber of corners they needed on the field to have their usual success. As a result, Martindale is now with the Giants and former Michigan defensive coordinator and Ravens linebacker coach Mike Macdonald is back as the defensive coordinator. Generating a pass rush could prove difficult for this Ravens defense. Justin Houston and Odafe Oweh will be the outside linebackers in Macdonald’s scheme. The aging Houston had just 4.5 sacks in 15 games in 2021. The inexperienced Oweh showed glimpses of greatness last season but was inconsistent, logging five sacks last season. Tyus Bowser led the Ravens with seven sacks but will start the season on the PUP lost as he recovers from a torn achilles tendon suffered late last season. Patrick Queen and Josh Bynes will man the inside backer spots. Up front nose tackle Michael Pierce will do a good job of plugging things up on the inside. Pierce is joined by veteran Calais Campbell at one end and second year man Justin Madubuike at the other. Humphries and Peters are back to man the starting cornerback spots this season. There is not much in the way of talent behind them. The safety spots will feature Chuck Clark and Marcus Williams as the starters with 2022 1st round pick Kyle Hamilton pushing for playing time behind them.
The Ravens feature the best kicker in the game in Justin Tucker. Jordan Stout will handle the punting duties with the dynamic Devin Duvernay returning both punts and kickoffs.
The Ravens are the fashionable pick by many to reclaim the AFC North title. Should they stay healthy they have the goods to stay in the division race and certainly will be in the Wild Card hunt. But there are more holes and weaknesses in this roster than there are in the Bengals roster. Expect Baltimore to fight for the division title right down to the wire but come up just a little short. All is not lost as it’s quite likely they will be playing football in January.
Prediction: 11-6, 2nd Place in the AFC North and a Wild Card berth
2021 Record: 8-9
The Baker Mayfield era is over in Cleveland, but the Browns faithful will have to wait until Week 13 to ring in the Deshaun Watson era due to his 11-game suspension by the NFL. Jacoby Brissett will hold down the fort at quarterback until Watson is eligible to play. Brissett is a far cry from Watson who is one of the games top quarterbacks, but you can win games with Brissett and that’s what the Browns are banking on. Without Watson, look for Cleveland to lean on an elite running game led by the duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. The Browns tallied 145.4ypg on the ground in 2021 and should put up similar numbers this season. A rock-solid offensive line will ensure that Chubb and Hunt have running lanes, and Brissett has time to throw.
The passing game is where the challenge is going to lie until Watson returns. Amari Cooper leads an ordinary wide receiver group. Behind Copper are Donavan Peoples-Jones, rookie David Bell and Anthony Schwartz. Tight Ends David Njoku and Harrison Bryant will complement the wide receivers in the Browns passing attack.
The defense picked up steam as the season went along in 2021 and was playing like a top 5 unit by the end of the year. This unit should be the strength of the team in 2022, at least until Deshaun Watson is under center for Cleveland. Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney are as lethal a pass rush duo as there is in the NFL. Defensive tackles Jordan Elliot and Tavern Bryan supply stout interior run defense. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah leads the linebacker corps. The Browns are loaded at cornerback with Denzel Ward, Greg Newsome II and Greedy Williams topping the depth chart. Gant Delpit and John Johnson will start at safety with Richard LeCounte and Ronnie Harrison providing depth.
Corey Bojorquez will do the punting with Cade York taking care of the kicking duties. Demetric Shelton will return punts and kickoffs.
With two teams as stacked as the Bengals and Ravens in the division, the Browns are in a tough spot without Deshaun Watson for the first eleven games of the season. The elite running attack and strong defense will keep them competitive but the limited passing game without Watson will keep this team a step behind Cincinnati and Baltimore in the division.
Prediction: 9-8, 3rd Place in the AFC North
2021 Record: 9-7-1
Things could have been much worse for the Steelers last season when you consider how far Ben Roethlisberger had fallen by 2021. Roethlisberger was a shell of his former self, unable to throw the ball deep or move behind a poor offensive line. Ben has ridden off into the sunset and Mitchell Trubisky has been handed the reigns of the Pittsburgh offense. The good news is that Trubisky is mobile which will help behind the still poor Steelers OL. The bad news is that Trubisky is an inconsistent passer, and one should not expect the Steelers passing attack to be very good in 2022. There are plenty of weapons to catch the football in wide receivers Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, and rookie 2nd round pick George Pickens at wide receiver. Tight End Pat Freiermuth and running back Najee Harris are also important cogs in the passing attack.
Harris is a tremendous back, but his production will be limited by Pittsburgh’s substandard line. Benny Snell and Jaylen Warren will spell Harris.
Like the offense this unit really fell off last season, ranking last in rush yards allowed per game and 24th in total defense. There is talent all over this front seven, but the results weren’t their last season. Tyson Alualu, Larry Ogunjobi, and Cameron Heyward are an extremely talented and productive front three. T.J. Watt is as good as edge rusher as there is in the NFL. Opposite Watt was Alex Highsmith, who tallied six sacks in his second year in the league. Devin Bush who had a down 2021 season returns at one inside backer spot with Myles Jack coming over from Jacksonville to man the other spot. The secondary struggled last season and outside of safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and newly acquired cornerback Levi Wallace there isn’t much to be excited about.
The reliable Chris Boswell returns for his eight season as the Steelers kicker with Pressley Harvin III back to oversee the punting duties. Gunner Olszewski comes over from the Patriots to return punts and kickoffs.
While there is talent on this team, they have the worst quarterback situation in the division and Mike Tomlin and his staff just can’t seem to get the most out of the talent that they have. Pittsburgh is a flawed team with the 12th toughest schedule in the NFL. Look for the 2022 season to be a struggle for the Steelers.
Prediction: 6-11, 4th Place in the AFC North