With apologies to the old NFC Central, the NFL’s new black and blue division is currently the AFC North. It’s a division that features elite defenses that play with speed and attitude, and a whiplash between high-end quarterback play and something of an homage to Trent Dilfer circa 2000 or (insert post-1999 Browns quarterback here).
Three of the four teams in the AFC North would currently qualify for the playoffs. That’s quite the feat amid strong play in that conference, and all the more remarkable considering the preseason favorite, the Cincinnati Bengals, are currently the one team on the outside looking in.
With the Bengals playing the Baltimore Ravens in a Thursday night brouhaha and the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns preparing for a Grade-A quality rockfight, I wanted to use this week’s Overhang and stack up the best division in the NFL before the teams go toe-to-toe (and hand-to-hand) in a week that has huge ramifications for the division, the conference, the NFL, and indeed, the world.
Strength: Joe Burrow. Come on
It’s Joe Burrow. I mean, come on. But it’s also the ability of Burrow to now move around like we know he’s able to. Post-bye Burrow has been checking into runs for himself and extending plays like he’s still in Baton Rouge:
best indicator that the Bengals haven’t been running QB Draws this season:
when Joe Burrow checked into one against the 49ers, LT Orlando Brown (#75, first season with the Bengals) had no fricken clue what Burrow called. pic.twitter.com/Q5Q80bgOQI
— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) November 1, 2023
Cincinnati thrives with Burrow throwing repeated jabs before delivering blows when the Bengals get into striking range, with Burrow’s ability to extend plays helping to create plays when the initial plan goes askew.
The Bengals have added a few new twists to their offense this season as a way to combat defenses honing in on their tendencies. They are moving Ja’Marr Chase around the formation more than ever and have sprinkled in more under-center play-action than they have in the past, continuing to evolve their offense as defenses have tried to keep their octane to mid-grade.
The Bengals’ offense sits around the middle of the pack now in all of the efficiency stats I like to splash across these digital pages, but have been rapidly ascending after a disastrous first month, sitting second in passing success rate and fourth in EPA per drive from Weeks 5-10. Burrow looks good. Chase looks great. Hopefully Tee Higgins can come back healthy. So, that’s nice!
But that leads us to all of the other aspects of this uneven Bengals season.
Weakness: I hope you’re sitting down, Lou Anarumo fans
A huge hole for the Bengals to fill was replacing safeties Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell, both of whom they lost to free agency this offseason. Bates and Bell played with a mind meld that put a vehicle governor on offenses and constantly took away plays down the field. That hole has remained a source of constant woe for this Bengals defense that constantly seems to be tackling a ball carrier down the field.
The Texans racking up 17 explosive plays (fourth-most allowed by a defense in a game since 2000) against this Bengals defense might have highlighted its warts. This Bengals team allows big plays (currently the highest rate of explosive plays in the NFL) and efficient plays (31st in success rate allowed) while also not creating many big plays of their own. Cincinnati has generated only 35 tackles for no gain or a loss this season, last in the NFL and seven fewer than the Lions in 31st, at a 16.5% rate that sits 9% lower than league average. Quarterbacks currently average the third-longest average time to throw against the Bengals and have generated the 11th-most expected points added on scrambles. (Hello, Lamar Jackson rushing overs!)
Timely turnovers have helped keep this defense afloat and the Bengals’ offense controls games – they currently rank third in EPA differential. But for a team that allows offenses to move the ball in a variety of ways, while also not creating that many big plays itself, Cincinnati needs the offense to sustain as well. Because more plays together, in theory, will help the Bengals’ new back end pairing of Nick Scott and Dax Hill continue to build their lines of communication. And they need to do so rapidly before the Bengals fall too far back in the battle royale we call the American Football Conference.
Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo deserves benefit of the doubt and is one of the best single game game-planners in the NFL (on either side of the ball), but more down-to-down success in the regular season will be needed to help this defense live see those splendid playoff gameplans.
The offensive line has had moments of positive play, namely in the Bengals’ game against the 49ers, but the unit has also been uneven. The Bengals are a below-average rushing team and their leakiness in protection can create chaos in an offense that wants to be ruthlessly on-time and efficient. That showed up constantly in Week 10 against the Texans, with Burrow constantly bailing out of the pocket and to the right, which ultimately had the trickle-down effect of Burrow throwing into a sea of arms:
Strengths: Offense and defense. Which is nice
The Ravens are 7-3, with those three losses coming by a combined 12 points. They sit on top of the AFC North and of the league in point differential and team DVOA and feature top-tier play on both sides of the ball.
They have a *puts coachspeak at news conference hat on* multiple-look defense that throws a rainbow-like spectrum of looks at offenses every week. Like showing a heavy blitz look with three safeties on the back end featuring Kyle Hamilton and Geno Stone bracketing Daryl Worley (circled red) on either side:
The Ravens also have ascending talent at all three levels, with stars like linebacker Roquan Smith and young stars like Hamilton, Odafe Oweh and Justin Madubuike:
When talking about the Ravens finishing games, let’s not forget that Odafe Oweh had a sack strip that would have won the game had the ball not bounced right in front of a Browns O-lineman. pic.twitter.com/kkwzRcYGk9
— Ryan Mink (@ryanmink) November 15, 2023
Combine that excellent defense with an explosive offense that can get it done through the air or on the ground — they’re top 10 in both areas in DVOA — and those weekly gameplans can best be described as “smorgasbord.” And baby you got a stew going.
The run game now is a healthy dose of lightning, thunder and now more lightning with Keaton Mitchell getting involved to complement Lamar Jackson and Gus Edwards’ efforts. The pass game features death by a million slant routes, with Jackson peppering Zay Flowers, Rashod Bateman and Odell Beckham Jr. underneath and Mark Andrews working a route tree that is more vibes-based than structured.
Edwards’ north-south run style is a great controller for other components of this offense. As defenses start anticipating that they have to race to the edge to corral Jackson or backward to limit the damage of the crisscrossing receivers, there’s Edwards thundering on to the safeties like a hamster ball across the kitchen floor.
Both sides flash innovation and aggression. It’s not always perfect (more on that in a second), but it’s been quite good so far for the Ravens. And as long as they stay healthy, a big if considering the past few seasons in Baltimore, they enter Thursday night having to feel good about how they stack up.
Weakness: Turnovers that would make you turn off ‘Madden’
Turnovers are the obvious thing the Ravens need to clean up, primarily in the red zone. It’s a simple and kind of a cop-out answer, but this Ravens team has kept several games close or straight up lost them through untimely turnovers.
Not all turnovers are built the same, even if the box score says so. And most of the Ravens’ turnovers have occurred when they are keeping the pedal to the metal too long — or just random flukiness. So as long as Jackson doesn’t throw another pass off a defender’s facemask that goes straight into the air and cleans up the miscommunication with his wide receivers, I feel even better about this Ravens team. It’s hard to tell an aggressive team to chill out when it’s what makes the squad great. So, while the Ravens definitely have to take care of the ball, it’s more about focus of the execution than lack of process.
Elsewhere linebacker Patrick Queen can at times be toyed with by offenses. Eye candy affects him more than most linebackers, which can leave voids for offenses to attack (hello, Joe Burrow). This has also led to the Ravens giving up explosive runs at a (un)healthy clip. This is the trade-off in all of the post-snap movement that the Ravens like to lean into, moving parts can lead to that one missed assignment or gap.
And perhaps a few more deep shots connecting would help add even more to this offense. Jackson has tested deep with Bateman a few times in recent weeks; a few more of those connecting will keep defenses from playing downhill on the Ravens’ underneath routes.
The other phase to note is on special teams, where Justin Tucker appears to be merely mortal after all.
What I’m watching on both sides of the ball in the Bengals-Ravens game
Can the Ravens hold onto the ball against the timely Bengals defense that seems to always come up with a big turnover in scoring range? The Bengals have been susceptible to long drives and explosive plays, as well as extended plays by quarterbacks this season. Forcing even one mistake against an offense prone to them can muck up a Ravens offense that wants to storm teams off the field.
Schematically, what do coordinator Mike Macdonald and this Ravens defense cook up against the Bengals that has sat up like the Undertaker in recent weeks. The Ravens have had success in confounding Burrow with post-snap movement over the past three matchups, turning the dials between zone, man, blitzing and simulated pressures alike and showing off the versatility of Hamilton and their other safeties. The Bengals have been adding new layers to their offense, but are again without wide receiver Tee Higgins. Can the Ravens force the hyper-efficient Burrow to guess incorrectly that one time and make a critical mistake?
Look for Burrow to attack with high-lows to put Queen in a bind. Or a double-move to create breathing room against the aggressive Ravens safeties (think of the one the Burrow hit to Chase in the AFC championship game last season). Also expect plenty of Joe Mixon on at-you run concepts to try and stay ahead of the sticks (and maybe pop one or two) and away from messy third-down situations.
Strengths: Run game, defense, the Steelers Way
The Steelers have been trying new things in their run game following their bye week, including run concepts that look influenced by what the Rams have been leaning into this season. They’re even featuring veteran receiver Allen Robinson II as a de facto tight end as a blocker in the run game:
The Steelers are fourth in rushing success rate from Weeks 7-10, getting a boost from more snaps for running back Jaylen Warren, a coach’s dream of a running back who provides value in all phases of the position. He is already on the short list for best protecting running back in the entire league and creates valuable second-level yards for this Steelers team that desperately needs any semblance of pop.
Pittsburgh also has what appears to be a rejuvenating draft class, with rookie right tackle Broderick Jones and second-rounders Keeanu Benton and Joey Porter Jr. all looking like hits. Third-rounder Darnell Washington is also getting a steady diet of snaps as a behemoth in-line blocker at tight end.
The defense rolls out one of the strongest fronts in the league, headlined by T.J. Watt but also featuring Alex Highsmith, the recently returned Cam Heyward and the aforementioned strong play from Benton:
Porter has provided an answer on the outside for the Steelers and has helped them become a top-five passing defense since their Week 6 bye. It’s a good unit that makes it tough on offenses throughout the game and can maul you up front. It’s a Steelers defense, essentially.
Weaknesses: General adventures throwing the ball
The passing game still relies on back-shoulder throws to George Pickens and is still hostage to Kenny Pickett’s whims with pocket presence, often leading to scattershot results in obvious passing situations.
It’s not a mistake that the Steelers have generated nearly as many explosive run plays (10) as passes (12) since their bye week, as the run game has been the area of most improvement. It’s also an encouraging sign that the Steelers can at least punish the light boxes that they face so often — no offense has faced more cloud coverages (i.e. coverage that features at least one side with Cover 2) than the Steelers this season.
The passing game needs to find simple answers to move the ball. Bootlegs and play-actions could go a long way in providing this offense with even more answers, even if they are just average answers. While this offense has improved over the past month, it is still a bottom-10 unit in just about everything you look at. So finding ways to complement the Steelers’ defense is huge.
The running game will be the foundation for this offense for the back half of the season. Like the Browns, they have a good defense with talented players, especially up front, something that will keep the Steelers in every game. Being able to run the ball with consistency gives them an avenue to manage game scripts — at least enough for head coach Mike Tomlin to work whatever sorcery he can that week. Getting just enough out of Pickett and this passing game will help the Steelers feel less fluky and more like the team that is showing signs of realness following their bye week. (It’s not a mistake the Steelers rank 12th in overall DVOA right now. They are a very real playoff contender, even if “Blame Canada” never gets old.)
Offenses can still find ways to toy with the back end of the Steelers’ defense that is missing an injured Minkah Fitzpatrick. They’ve done an admirable job of making offenses work for gains over the middle, where Fitzpatrick likes to lurk, but have also given up the fourth-highest explosive pass rate in the league since their bye. Testing the safeties’ communication is a way to create big plays, but also opens offenses to long-developing plays against that defensive front. Do you dare?
Strength: Holding offenses below 20 points
The Browns’ defense has been among the league’s strongest through 10 weeks, sitting at or near the tippy-top of every metric with a fearsome front featuring the current favorite for Defensive Player of the Year in Myles Garrett, another quality starter in Za’Darius Smith and impactful role players like Ogbo Okoronkwo, Maurice Hurst, Shelby Harris and Dalvin Tomlinson:
This is the strength of this team, full stop. The Browns have allowed the fewest plays per drive by any defense since at least the 2000 season. Cleveland is first against the run and pass in terms of DVOA. It heaps negative plays onto the offense’s lap, weighing it down and daring quarterbacks to hold onto the ball longer. The Browns force turnovers. They create points. They stop offenses in their tracks. They punish overmatched quarterbacks. They play and feel like an elite unit. Of the eight offensive and defensive sides of the ball in the AFC North, the Browns’ defense is the one I trust the most (or at the very least tied with the Ravens’ defense).
Weakness: Scoring 20 points
The strength with this Browns team is obvious. Coordinator Jim Schwartz has the defense humming and the group has stars capable of reaching stretches of nuclear-level power.
But the Browns’ offense has been ravaged by injuries, first to star running back Nick Chubb, then their offensive line, and now starting quarterback Deshaun Watson, who will undergo shoulder surgery and miss the remainder of the season. So, how does this team scrap together points when two players who account for over 13% of the Browns’ salary cap this season are sidelined?
This isn’t anything new for the Browns to overcome this season, as injuries hit them early and often on offense. The Browns already sit at 28th in offensive DVOA and 27th in offensive success rate. Cleveland’s passing success rate ranks 30th, just below the Giants and Panthers and just above the Titans and Jets, but it showed signs of life in the second half of its Week 10 win over the Raven
With rookie fifth-rounder Dorian Thompson-Robinson taking the quarterback reins for now, every Browns game from here on out is going to be a battle of field position that would make Woody Hayes proud. The Browns don’t need the offense to be a top-10 or even top-half-of-the-league unit to have a chance to make the playoffs in the loaded (but flawed) AFC.
But this team should try to find a way to create chunks through the air; the Browns have leaned on screens already with and without Watson, but perhaps they should full-blown spam long-developing shot plays. Keep blockers in, limit the routes and reads for young quarterbacks like DTR to sift through, and lean on the potential in variance to create several first downs in one go. Maybe they’ll force one missed tackle and get into scoring range, or even closer for a punt to pin the opposition and force it to create yards against Garrett and the rest of the pass rush that have been wrecking offenses like the NWO running in a title belt at the end of Nitro.
Connecting on the handful of haymakers would keep this Browns team valid. Find those, and let offensive line coach Bill Callahan sprinkle some guru fairy dust on the run game. And lean into Jerome Ford, Kareem Hunt and Pierre Strong the rest of the way.
The Browns are going to get chances with the football, but they have to make them count.
What I’m watching for on both sides of the ball in the Steelers-Browns game
Which offense, and really which team, can win the war of attrition? It’s not going to be about who can land the most punches in this game, but who can hit the biggest ones. Shot plays, trick plays, sacks, turnovers, punt returns. This is going to be a field position battle at its finest. Hidden yards will be visible.
The point total for this game currently sits at 33 on BetMGM. This game is the NFL version of siege warfare. Truly a race to 20 at its finest, and nothing feels more AFC North than that.
Picks (odds via BetMGM)
Bengals at Ravens -3.5
Steelers +1 at Browns
Lamar Jackson anytime TD (+120)
Lamar Jackson over 44.5 rushing yards (-110)
Joe Mixon over 13.5 longest rush (-130)