3 underrated players on the Pittsburgh Steelers

Who is the most underrated player on the Steelers?

By: Jake Rajala

It will not be easy for the Pittsburgh Steelers to return to the playoffs in the Big Ben-less era. With that said, I’m going to simply untwine three under-the-radar profiles that could help the Steelers shine in a division that may not have Deshaun Watson next season.

Larry Ogunjobi

Larry Ogunjobi was one of the best-kept secrets with the Browns for four seasons and then he really blossomed with a new AFC North team in Cincinnati last season. Ogunjobi recorded career-high marks in sacks (7.5), TFLs (12), and QB hits (16). The Steelers DL may have the reigning DPOY winner and Pro Bowl DL Cameron Heyward, but Ogunjobi can certainly be the x-factor on defense for many years. The Steelers ranked first in sacks last season and the recent off-season signing of the former Browns third-round draft pick should help solidify the Steelers as a Top-3 team in sacks next season.

Mason Cole

The Steelers center Mason Cole is certainly the x-factor on the Steelers offensive line. He has already caught the attention of his quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. Per Steelers Depot, Trubisky stated, “I didn’t even know if he was gonna be the center at the time because they were talking about guard or center, but he’s working in at center and has done a great job. Me and him have gotten really close from day one”. The plan is for Cole to start at center, but he does have the ability to excel at guard. Cole earned a modest 69.7 grade by PFF last season.

Pat Freiermuth

The Steelers tight end Pat Freiermuth hauled in an impressive 7 touchdowns as a rookie. Freiermuth also had a 72.3 grade by PFF last season and PFF named him as a 2022 breakout candidate. The Steelers may have a talented WR trio, but it’s important to not lose sight of the Steelers second-year TE. It shouldn’t be a surprise if he has double-digit touchdowns and a Pro Bowl berth next season.

3 breakout candidates on the Baltimore Ravens

Justin Madubuike will turn heads in 2022

By: Jake Rajala

The Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns were essentially tied in a Chinese finger trap as the most disappointing squads in 2021. Yet, the Lamar Jackson-led Ravens should feel comfortable about turning the corner in 2022. With that said, I’m going to untwine three profiles on the Ravens that should break out and help propel their hungry AFC North squad to stronger heights next season.

Rashod Bateman

The Ravens second-year WR Rashod Bateman knows that the trumpets are being played for his arrival after Hollywood Brown was shipped out of town. Per RavenCountry.com, Bateman is ready to thrive in his new chair. Bateman knocked out 46 receptions and 515 yards in 12 games last season. I fully expect an increased target share (near Brown’s 146 targets last season) in a 17-game slate will drive Bateman to be a 1,000+ yd WR in 2022.

Kyle Hamilton

There are countless analysts including Tyler Sullivan from CBS Sports that believe Kyle Hamilton was one of the biggest steals in the draft. Mina Kimes even felt like Hamilton was the best player in the draft. In fact, it seemed surprising to the Ravens that he was available at 14th overall. I trust that Hamilton will have plenty of targets in the Ravens elite secondary featuring Marcus Williams, Marcus Peters, Marlon Humphrey, and I trust that he will be up for the challenge.

Justin Madubuike

I’m a big fan of Justin Madubuike’s personality (and size), but it could likely correlate with him being a future star. The player that took positive steps last season has expressed that he still has a lot of work to do in his third season. I believe that his training with Aaron Donald this off-season should help prepare him to excel moving forward. PFF dubbed him as a breakout player in 2021, but I finally expect the quick-twitch, Sheldon Rankins-clone to utilize his ability well on a consistent basis in 2022.

3 reasons why the Browns can win the AFC North

Why the Browns can win the AFC North

By: Jake Rajala

The Cleveland Browns unequivocally had the most disappointing performance in 2021. It was clear that Kevin Stefanski’s dip from the Coach of The Year in 2020 to helping his squad land a third-place finish in the AFC North last season didn’t inspire the Dawg Pound. The Browns head coach and general manager Andrew Berry knew they needed to make some exotic, impressive moves entering the 2022 off-season. Berry’s all-out blitz approach this offseason has helped his team land the gifted, highly controversial Deshaun Watson, superb Amari Cooper, ascending Chase Winovich, and retain the athletic freak TE David Njoku. It’s obvious that Browns aim to beat the dead horse of acquiring off-season talent over the prior two seasons should realistically lead to success in 2022.

With that enunciated, I believe the Browns should feel confident about their chances of winning the AFC North in 2022. The Cincinnati Bengals may have been crowned AFC Champions last season, but they only won two more games than the Baker Mayfield-led Browns in 2021. It could very well be the Watson-led Browns turn to win their frigid AFC division for the first time in the history of the AFC North. So, here are three reasons why CLE can win the AFC North in 2022.

  • QB change

I may sound like Captain Obvious, but the Browns QB change from Watson to Mayfield is worth reflecting on. Watson threw 33 touchdowns in 2020, while Mayfield threw 17 touchdowns last season. Furthermore, the Browns new QB only recorded 7 ints in 2020, as the Browns former first overall pick unveiled 13 picks. Yes, Watson might literally be the opposite of the Browns former QB. Watson can for sure propel the Browns loaded roster better than Mayfield with the combination of his wicked play-making ability and quality turnover habits.

  • Healthy Kareem Hunt

The Browns arguably have the NFL’s best 1-2 punch at the RB spot with Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb. Both of the Browns ball carriers can be effective at breaking down opposing defenses with their pure power. Sometimes NFL RB tandems don’t need to embody the combination of “thunder and lightning if they can both remain fresh and strong. Chubb’s 2021 season may have been his personal best season, but Hunt missed nine games a season ago. The QB room might be shiny in Cleveland, but a healthy Browns RB tandem could be a big reason for Stefanski’s offense potentially finishing as one of the top o-units in PPG.

  • Lack of division growth

I believe that the AFC North is loaded, but I don’t believe that two of the AFC North teams (excluding the Browns and Bengals) were noticeably creative this off-season. Fate couldn’t prevent the Steelers from witnessing Big Ben retire, but it will take time for the Steelers to grow their QB position. The Steelers squad that miraculously made the playoffs last season didn’t ink one or two big-name profiles in free agency, too. They were able to sign Myles Jack, but they will also miss a lot of production from Joe Haden and JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Meanwhile, the Ravens didn’t help Lamar Jackson’s growth by taking away Hollywood Brown. The Bengals weren’t as witty as the Browns, but they did make two smart additions in La’el Collins and Alex Cappa. I expect the Browns to feel comfortable in every divisional contest next season. The Browns had lost three division games in 2021, but I expect them to lose one divisional contest next season.

The latest outlook on the Bengals and Ravens

Will the Bengals win the AFC North in 2022?

By: Ivan Mulinder

With Free Agency well underway it’s time to look at how the Browns rivals in the AFC North and the wider AFC have fared so far. Let’s start with their two main rivals for the AFC North Division crown.

Baltimore Ravens

One of the key moves the Ravens have made is to extend the contract of Jim Harbaugh for another 3 years. He has masterminded a regular-season record of 137 wins, to 88 losses, 4 Division Titles, 11 post-season wins, 8 losses, and 1 Super Bowl. The Ravens play a certain brand of football very well and are a tough team to beat. They were injury-ravaged last season yet still won 8 games and this comes down to coaching and team spirit. Do not be fooled into thinking that because they finished last in the AFC North in 2021 they’re a spent force. 

The Ravens have spent over $100 million so far in Free Agency and still have about $10 million to play with. Their biggest addition is Safety Marcus Williams who they’ve signed for $70 million over 5 years from the Saints. Williams is one of the top Safeties and fits the Ravens brand of Defensive football perfectly. He has consistently recorded PFF grades above 74 and when targeted in 2021 he achieved his career-best grades in yards/target against him and completion % against him. Last season his overall PFF grade was 80.1. He replaces DeShon Elliott who only played 6 games last season. He’s a definite upgrade and has an excellent injury-free record. They have added a much-needed Right Tackle in Morgan Moses who signed for $15 million over 3 years, which frankly is a steal in itself. Moses had an overall PFF grade of 71 last season and is a solid RT with an injury-free history of playing 113 consecutive games. The Ravens were in turmoil at their Tackle position last season so Moses is an important addition.

Interestingly the Ravens spent more money on a Defensive Tackle than they did on a Right Tackle bringing in Michael Pierce for $16.5 million over 3 years. He is an early-down Nose Tackle and a good run blocker with an overall PFF grade last season of 78.5. At 340 lbs he’s a hard man to run past, but his pass rush grade was 84.5 so for a big man he’s no slouch! The Ravens have re-signed DT Aaron Crawford who didn’t play last season, but who in 2020 had an overall PFF grade of 72.5 and who had a better run blocking grade than Pierce. These two DTs will make a solid anchor to the Ravens Defensive Line and if Calais Campbell returns that’s a position of strength. They haven’t had any success in improving their Defensive Edge room missing out on Za’Darius Smith and Arden Key. At the moment they’ve only got Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington so this is a concern for the team.

On the Offensive side of the ball the Ravens still haven’t extended Lamar Jackson and this might be a lot to do with the Browns signing Deshaun Watson for a fully guaranteed contract of $230 million. I’m assuming they will extend Lamar, but they still need a Centre having lost their starting 2021 Centre Bradley Bozeman who was a very solid player last year. He’s gone to the Panthers for a 1 year $2.8 million deal and I’m surprised the Ravens didn’t re-sign him since this leaves Trystan Colon as their likely starting Centre with a PFF grade of 62.6 last season, although his pass blocking grade was very good at 74.5. I’ve mentioned already that the Ravens have a brand that they stick to. Full Back Patrick Ricard re-signed at $11.25 million over 3 years is a classic example with most NFL teams ditching FBs. Last season was his best season in 3 years with 2 carries for 4 yards, but he has made 3 consecutive Pro-Bowls and Lamar does play better with him on the pitch. Overall I’d say the Ravens have improved their Defense, but not their Offense- so far.

Cincinnati Bengals 

The reigning AFC Champions who narrowly missed out on a first Super Bowl win have definitely improved on Offense and in the area they were weakest, namely their Offensive Line. They have added:

  • RT La’el Collins
  • C Ted Karras
  • RG Alex Cappa

On PFF grades using 2021 season stats this has significantly strengthened their OL from 61.4 to 75.7. Ted Karras actually plays better as Left Guard so the Bengals might be in the market for a Centre. La’el Collins scored a PFF grade of 82 last season, Karras 72.8, and Alex Cappa 74.2. Left Tackle is Jonah Williams who graded 77.1, but depth is still a concern with Guard Quinton Spain (PFF grade 72.3) needing to be re-signed as otherwise, the Bengals next highest Guard will be Jackson Carmon on 56.3. D’Ante Smith and Hakeem Adenji are both worse than Carmon. Both Tackles Collins and Williams have a tiny concern over injuries, but nothing to really worry the Bengals coaching staff. Tackle depth will be a concern for the Bengals should these two get injured Isaiah Prince is about it with an overall grade of 58.0 last season, although his run-blocking grade was 73.7. Riley Reiff is a Free Agent they could bring back as a depth piece who would be fairly solid. The other offensive addition to the Bengals is Tight End Hayden Hurst who replaces CJ Uzomah whose stats were much better than Hayden’s last year. Uzomah had 493 receiving yards, which was 20th in the league, and 5 receiving touchdowns which were 9th. Hurst had 221 receiving yards and 3 receiving touchdowns. Uzomah is a loss and Hurst has a 1 year deal so expect the Bengals to draft a TE although these are notoriously slow starters in the NFL.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Bengals have made some important re-signings in CB Eli Apple and DT B.J Hill. Most importantly they retain CB Chidobe Awuzie who had an overall coverage grade of 84.2 last season and CB Mike Hilton who graded 73.6 in coverage. Rumours are they’re interested in CB Stephon Gilmore who would be an excellent addition. They do need to think about their Safety position so Jessie Bates should probably be extended, but overall this Defense is solid, with the CB Room a strength. However, we all know that teams are going to have to outscore the Bengals with QB Joe Burrow, WR Ja’Marr Chase, WR Tyler Boyd, WR Tee Higgins and RB Joe Mixon being quite the arsenal of weapons! 

The Bengals have improved significantly in the area they were weakest in and on the side of the ball that scores the points. The Ravens have improved in Defense with question marks remaining over Lamar Jackson’s consistency. The Bengals have to remain the favourites to retain the AFC North Division Title, but if the Browns can get Watson playing sooner rather than later they might be more of a threat to the Bengals later in the season and in to the postseason.

Road to the Playoffs: AFC North outlook

How will the frigid AFC North play out

By: Chinmay Kulkarni

The AFC North has cannibalized itself – the four respective teams losing some questionable games, having numerous instances of COVID, and being one of the most injured divisions in the sport. Each team still stands an outside chance to make the playoffs via winning their division by all being within one game of each other. Let’s take a look at each team in the AFC North road to the playoffs.

Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals are by far the most complete team in their division, having the least number of impactful injuries and most importantly being able to avoid the cloud of COVID. Joe Burrow recently stated that their team avoided COVID because ‘there’s nothing to do in Cincinnati’. The lack of nightlife in the south-Ohio city is likely more of a blessing more than a curse, as the most explosive offense in the division stands at first place, but has a difficult schedule moving forward like its divisional rivals.

The Bengals play a week 16 game against a questionable Lamar Jackson. Though Tyler Huntley is more than capable as a backup QB, injuries continue to pile up on defense for the Ravens. This should be a straightforward win for the Bengals, assuming Joe Mixon is active for this week. Week 17 on the other hand is a date with the Chiefs… not really much to be said here – unless COVID continues to wreak havoc on Kansas City. Week 18 is a road game against the Browns, with the playoff futures of both teams hinging. The Bengals MUST win that game and go 2-1 in this three-week stretch to 100% make the playoffs and win their division.

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens are in the running for the most injured teams in the NFL, starting the season with impact players on IR. With COVID running rampant, and the day-to-day status of Lamar Jackson, Tyler Huntley will likely look to steer Ravens into the playoffs. A redeeming factor for the Ravens – a homestand for the last two games of the season.

As stated earlier, Baltimore travels to Cincinnati in week 16 – an extremely tough test for the embattled team. This follows up by the peaking at the right time Rams as Matt Stafford might throw the ball for 400+ yards if they can stand the cold. The final game is likely the biggest game of the season with the Steelers coming to town. Like the Bengals, this game will make or break either team’s playoff hopes. The Ravens need to go 2-1 in this home stretch to have any hope to make the playoffs. With all honesty, the game against the Rams will make or break whether Baltimore is able to become a wild card seed, giving them a slight cushion to lose a game. Otherwise, they must win their division games. The road to the playoffs is tough, but the Ravens have historically been a gritty franchise. Winning divisional games equals getting into the playoffs.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers have been a largely complex franchise throughout the season, with play hinging on the performance of Big Ben. Ben, who looks washed, is at the top of his prime. The running game for the Steelers has been generally consistent headed by Najee Harris, a good bright spot on the season, and moving forward.

The Steelers likely do not control their own destiny, and like the Ravens, need to go 2-1 down the stretch to make a wild card and 3-0 to win their division. Unfortunately, the schedule makers have not been kind. With a week 16 matchup in Kansas City, this seems like a near impossible feat for the aging QB against a Chiefs defense with a newfound rally cry. Their season wraps with a homestand against the Browns and a road game at Baltimore. The Steelers MUST win both of those games to even have a 50% chance to make the playoffs and have an outside chance at a wild card seed, depending on outcomes of likely the Colts and Chargers.

Cleveland Browns

The Browns have been an inconsistent firestorm this season, with the trading of OBJ at the trade deadline, calls for Baker Mayfield’s job, inconsistencies in the backfield, and COVID everywhere on the team (though Joe Burrow put Ohio nightlife on the hot seat). It’s a traveling circus at WR with several no-name players able to make a statement in key losses.

Unfortunately, the playoff hopes and dreams of the Cleveland Browns died in the horrible viewing experience of Monday afternoon football against the Raiders. However, the road is still simple, just win the division games, and the division crown comes with it. Week 16 is a matchup against the Packers at Lambeau, one that seems like a near-impossible feat as they inch closer to winning the NFC. Week 17 is at the Steelers, and week 18 is a home game against the Bengals. Though the phrase any given Sunday still holds, the Baker Mayfield-less Browns are likely doomed if they cannot get the offensive weapons back soon and establish even a semblance of momentum in the final games of the season.

3 reasons why the Bengals have a “chance” to win the AFC North

Can the Bengals win the AFC North?

By: Jake Rajala

The young Cincinnati Bengals team led by now second-year quarterback Joe Burrow finished last in the AFC North in 2020. As training camp kicks off for Cincy, there’s a lot of reason for new optimism heading into the 2021 season. 

The Bengals have upgraded the offensive weapons for Burrow, reeled in big free agent names on defense, and retained excellent Bengals. With a new-look team and attitude, the Zac Taylor mentored squad has their sights set on accomplishing great feats in 2021. Kay Adams, who leads the Good Morning Football crew, boldly predicts that Burrow will even lead the Bengals to a playoff berth. 

I believe that a playoff trip is very possible and the Bengals will be serious competitors in each of their 17 game slate. Yet, I want to take the bar a step further. It appears to be the potential playoff team should be in the conversation for a division title. It will be a serious hurdle for the 4-11-1 Bengals squad from a season ago to transcend into divisions, but it’s a real possibility

Here is why the Bengals stand a chance to win the AFC North in 2021.

  • Much improved pass rush

The Bengals passed the ball the second-most in the league with Joe Burrow under the helm. If Burrow’s offense is going to try and blow defenses out of the building, they need to be able to prevent offenses from torching their own defense. It doesn’t matter if the Bengals can put up high-scoring efforts if they can’t stop any opposing signal-caller. The Bengals were dreadful in 2020 at chasing QBs, as they ranked dead last in sacking the QB.

In 2021, there’s a lot of confidence in the Bengals front seven to have a turnaround and harass opposing QBs at will. The biggest difference will come from newly acquired pass rusher Trey Hendrickson. Hendrickson had more sacks than Aaron Donald, despite missing one game and playing in a rotation with Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport. The Bengals may have lost Carl Lawson, but they will have Sam Hubbard to lean in as a replacement. Hubbard notched 8.5 sacks in 2019. 

  • Ravens and Steelers QB situation

The Ravens and Steelers have undoubtedly stacked teams. Nonetheless, there are shaky factors with the Ravens QB and Steelers QB. These negative sides of the two divisional QB profiles could arise in 2021. 

The Steelers and Ravens carry the hardest course of schedule in the NFL. Lamar may be very electric, but he’s struggled mightily when tasked with facing quality teams on the big stage. He lost most of his CFB championship games, he’s been mostly porous on MNF showdowns, and he carries a 1-3 playoff record. Unfortunately, Lamar will be facing more talented teams in 2021 than he has in his career. 

Big Ben has often been a clutch player in big moments and he’s a sincere season veteran. However, the Steelers QB is clearly on the downhill of his career. The QB recorded a career-low Y/A in 2020 (6.3), which was a yard lower than his previous career-low (7.3). The Steelers QB is clearly on his last legs and he may see a sharper decline in what appears to be his last season in the NFL. I believe if the worst-case scenario at QB shows up for Pittsburgh, they could realistically squeeze out 7-9 wins, while the Ravens could get only 8-10 with a down year from Lamar. 

Truthfully, the Browns are AFC North favorites (no surprise) and real Super Bowl contenders. The Bengals will have to beat the Browns at least once, but it would be a tight finish for the prize if everything goes exceptionally well for the Bengals. The Bengals would need to reach their ceiling of 11 wins while beating the Browns at least once. Outside of beating the Browns head to head, a below-average version of OBJ and Clowney will have to surface for CLE throughout most of their season, while the pass defense needs to struggle if the Bengals want to edge out the Browns for AFC North glory.

Could Minkah Fitzpatrick be the next Steelers defensive back to win DPOY?

Minkah Fitzpatrick DPOY worthy in 2021?

By: Dave Stewart

The annual NFL awards are always exciting. One of the most interesting each year is the Defensive Player of the Year award. Over the last four seasons, it has also come to be known as the Aaron Donald award. The Los Angeles Rams’ defensive tackle has won three out of the last four awards.

I do not believe anyone would bat an eye if he were to take home a fourth this season. However, Donald is not the player I want to talk about today. Pittsburgh Steeler safety, Minkah Fitzpatrick, is just 24 years old and already he has received First-team All-Pro accolades twice in the first three years of his career. What would it take for him to add to DPOY to his trophy case?

To answer that question, I felt it prudent to look to history. The award was first given out 50 years ago in 1971. A safety has won only four times in that span. Dick Anderson became the first in 1973, followed by Kenny Easley in 1984, Ed Reed in 2004, and Troy Polamalu in 2010. Polamalu, the most recent safety to take home the trophy did so by accumulating seven interceptions to go along with 11 passes defended, one fumble recovery, one sack, two QB hits, one touchdown, and 69 total tackles, six of them for losses.

He was a disrupter, all over the field, in order to be named the league’s best defensive player. Fortunately, for Fitzpatrick, his style has him all over the field, as well. As a strong safety, Polamalu frequently played close to the line of scrimmage, and was used in a pass rushing capacity.

Steelers’ defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau would draw up blitzes allowing Polamalu to use his speed to get after the quarterback. Often times, he would crowd close to the offensive line, threatening to blitz before ultimately dropping back in coverage. It was a technique that created confusion for quarterbacks and occasionally helped lead to his interceptions of pass deflections.

Fitzpatrick plays free safety and is rarely used to blitz the quarterback. He has only one QB hit in his career and four tackles for loss. Lacking opportunity to make plays in the opponents’ backfield, Fitzpatrick will have to meet a specific criteria to be in the running for DPOY.

He will need to establish a new personal best in interceptions. To date, Fitzpatrick has topped out at five picks in 2019. He has scored one touchdown in each if his first three seasons, a pace he will need to continue or improve upon to take home the honors. Averaging 76 total tackles each year is a solid number for a safety, but increasing that total will definitely attract some attention his way. Remarkably fast, Fitzpatrick still does not quite match up to the astonishing foot speed of Polamalu.

Yet, if the Steelers find a way to utilize his speed to diversify their pass rush, Fitzpatrick’s appeal for individual honors is bound to increase, especially if he can record his first career sack. In short, it will take a Herculean effort from Fitzpatrick to compete for the league’s highest defensive honor. Still, as one of the league’s premier safeties, it is hard to count him out. Whether he holds the trophy at year’s end or not, it is safe to say we can expect another big season from this emerging superstar.

Three reasons why the Steelers could repeat as AFC North champs

The Pittsburgh Steelers offseason needs high goals

By: Noah Nichols

Everyone knows the story. The Steelers began the 2020 NFL season with an impressive 11-0 record. They would then go 1-4 and be eliminated in the first round the by the Cleveland Browns. However, that first round loss has really brought down people’s expectations for the Steelers. It is a popular opinion to believe that the Steelers will not make the playoffs in 2021. To be sure, the end of 2020 left a bad taste in the mouth of both fans and critics. The Steelers flaws really came to the surface at the end of the season.

But that does not mean that the Steelers won’t win the division, like they did last year. Even when they were predicted to finish third in the division. Yeah, the Steelers did not look good at the end of the season. But they have changed some things to fix the flaws that were apparent at the end of the 2020. Like their running backs and offensive line.

The AFC North is not so different from 2020. Some new players here, same players there, talent lost, and talent gained. That’s what happens in free agency and the draft. And while the critics are quick to point out the Steelers flaws, and praise the rest of the division for players acquired, they forget the Steelers. They have everything that they need to win the division. And they plan to. They wont say it, but they don’t have to, they will let their play do the talking, and let the rest of the division take the spotlight. Like the Browns, who are now expected to win the division, something that they have not done since 2002.

The Steelers have a running game

It is not early to say that the Steelers will have a better run game in 2021 than in 2020, where they finished dead last in the NFL in rushing yards per game.

Najee Harris will make sure that doesn’t happen again.

After being drafted in the first round at 24 overall, he instantly improves the Steelers run game from worst, to average. At least. I can’t say, well he improves the running game, here, here, and here. Oh wait, I can. He’s smarter, bigger, more fluid, a better pass catcher, stronger, and more athletic than any other running back on the Steelers roster. By far.

It’s not just the influx of talent, it’s the amount of times that he will touch the football. 300 times this season is probably too low of a mark. 340 is closer. And that threat, will force the division to do something that they have not had to do in a long time.

Focus on stopping the run against the Steelers. The division has been able to key in on the pass for the past two-three years and largely ignore the running game except when James Conner was playing, when he was healthy. Now, they cannot ignore Harris. A great example is the second Bengals game from 2020 where JuJu Smith-Schuster caught a dump-off pass over the middle and was clocked by Vonn Bell. Bell knew that the Steelers weren’t going to run the ball, because they were so bad at it, so he keyed in on JuJu.

Harris will force teams to respect the running game, which also opens up the passing game even more. Essentially, Harris ensures that the division cannot focus on one aspect of the Steelers offense. And that’s something that they are not used to doing, not since the days of Le’veon Bell.

The Steelers defense is still elite

The offseason losses to the Steelers defense are a little overblown. First, Bud Dupree is a big loss. But Alex Highsmith, who took his place last year when Dupree tore his ACL, proved that he is a worthy starter. Highsmith will ease the loss of Dupree. The loss of Mike Hilton is more of a pass rush loss than a coverage loss. Hilton, being 5″8 and never the fastest player on the field, was never great in coverage. His bread and butter was defending the run and blitzing.

While Hilton was great at what he did, it’s not that hard to find someone who can blitz. And the Steelers are replacing Hilton with Cameron Sutton, who was much, much better in coverage. And even though Steven Nelson is no longer on the team, he was cut. Clearly the Steelers are confident in what they have behind him.

The Steelers still have an insane pass rush, probably the best interior defensive line in the NFL. They have the best edge rusher in the NFL to pair alongside that defensive line. And they have arguably the best safety tandem in the league. The defense is not going anywhere, and will be a pain to play against for the division.

The Steelers know the division, and how to win it

I wanted to put these statistics in the above column, but it made more sense here. Lamar Jackson has played the Steelers as a starting quarterback twice. He has been sacked nine times, thrown five interceptions, thrown 24 incompletions, compared to three touchdowns and 369 yards passing in two games. Not so great. Jackson lost both those games. (Fun fact, Jackson has never beaten the Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger as the opposing quarterback.)

Baker Mayfield has a passer rating of 80.4 with 884 yards, 7 touchdowns and 4 interceptions in 5 games versus the Steelers in his career, much better than Lamar. However, Mayfield has been sacked 16 times in those five games. And one of those games was against the Steelers backups to end the 2020 season. Joe Burrow has not fared much better, going 21 of 40 for 213 yards, one touchdown, 4 sacks, and a passer rating of 76.4. Burrow has only played on game though, so that information cannot be taken as 100% accurate.

However, the division clearly struggles at quarterback when playing the Steelers defense. Ben Roethlisberger is 63-20 versus the AFC North, and half of those losses belong to the Ravens. Eight belong the the Bengals. Ben Roethlisberger has lost to the Browns only twice in his 18-year career. He knows how to beat the rest of the division. The Steelers know how to win the division. Yeah, the division got a little tougher in some areas, but it got weaker in others. Like the pass rush, outside of Myles Garret, not a single player on the rest of the division’s front seven would start on the Steelers front seven. And that’s not even because of how good their front seven is, but how bad the rest of the division’s is.

Bill Cowher said it best in a interview on First Take.

“I think they will, they’ll be the hunt,” Bill Cowher said when asked on First Take recently if the Steelers will make the playoffs in 2021. “When you look at them, yes the division’s got tougher, but I love the pick of Najee Harris…” “Defensively they get Devin Bush back and that’s a top-tier defense. So, yes the division’s gotten better, but they’ve got a lot of veterans in that locker room that know how to win close games. And that’s what it’s going to come down to, and they got a great kicker in (the) kicking game. So, I think they’ll be in the hunt, and yes, I will say they will make the playoffs.”

The Steelers have a running game, they have a great defense, and they know how to win the division. Oh, and their receivers are still pretty darn good. They have everything they need to win the division. Just because no one in the national media is predicting it, does not mean it won’t happen. Don’t be surprised when it does. Don’t sleep on the Steelers. I guarantee the rest of the division isn’t.

The Most Improved Area of Cleveland’s Defense: Secondary

Denzel Ward will improve the Browns secondary

By: Michael Welsh

The Browns finished the 2020 season with the 21st ranked defense, giving up a total of 5,735 yards. Clearly there were many areas to improve in, and in the 2021 off-season, Andrew Berry did just that with the draft and free agency. Outside of Myles Garrett, Denzel Ward, and Ronnie Harrison, there was a lot left to be desired on that side of the ball last year.

You could say every area of the defense has improved dramatically and they are poised to potentially be a top 5 unit in the NFL. The defensive line should be much better with the additions of Jadeveon Clowney, Takk Mckinley, and Malik Jackson. Taking a look at the linebackers, there are still some questions but with Anthony Walker and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, they should be faster and far more dynamic.

All of those additions are great, but the area that improved the most overall is the secondary. In 2020, it was tough to see games where the offense would get a big lead, but then slowly let teams back in games as Andrew Sendejo blew yet another coverage. It wasn’t just Sendejo, though. Outside of Denzel Ward, who missed 4 games, the entire secondary was often dreadful and hard to watch. Andrew Berry knew this and aggressively attacked that weakness in the 2021 offseason. Let’s take a look at the new additions and how they can make a substantial impact this fall, along with returning players and how they fit into the defensive back room.

John Johnson III – Safety – 2020 team, Los Angelas Rams

Perhaps the best overall signing of free agency, the Browns picked up John Johnson for a 3 year deal worth $33 million. Johnson reportedly turned down more money to come to Cleveland, calling it an “opportunity of a lifetime.” That is music to Browns fans ears, and it will only get better when he steps on the field. Johnson played on the number one ranked defense in all of football last year, finishing with an 85.6 Pro Football Focus grade. The former third round pick also had the green dot on his helmet and called defensive plays, which makes him even more valuable if Joe Woods wants to go that route. He has potential to be the ball-hawking safety Cleveland has been looking for since returning to the league in 1999.

Troy Hill – Cornerback – 2020 team, Los Angelas Rams

Following in Johnson’s footsteps, Troy Hill signed with the Browns shortly after his deal was made official. Hill is going to be a huge addition as a nickel corner that is versatile and has a nose for the football. Hill scored two defensive touchdowns and had three interceptions in 2020, finishing with a 74.2 Pro Football Focus grade. Having arguably the best nickel corner in the NFL is a huge step up from Kevin Johnson and Terrance Mitchell who often played the position the last few years. Expect Hill to make an immediate impact.

Greg Newsome – Cornerback – 2020 team, Northwestern (college)

Andrew Berry was all smiles when pick 26 came around in the 2021 NFL Draft and Greg Newsome was still on the board. He has all the makings of an All-Pro cornerback in the NFL. Throughout college, Newsome thrived at Northwestern. He allowed a 31.7 passer rating in 2020, including a 0.0 rating on 3rd and 4th downs. Adding to that, Newsome allowed only 1 touchdown on 471 coverage snaps. He is the definition of a shutdown corner, and although he has much to learn at the next level, there is a good chance he makes the Pro Bowl his rookie year like fellow teammate Denzel Ward in 2018.

Denzel Ward – Cornerback – 2020 team, Cleveland Browns

Speaking of Denzel Ward, he’s one of the returning players to Cleveland’s defense in 2021, and he actually has a fair amount of pressure on him. Ward has played great in his young career, but has yet to play a full season. In 2021, we need to see him play every game and earn a contract extension from the front office. Either way, when he is on the field, he plays like a top 10 corner in the NFL. He finished with two interceptions and a 72.8 Pro Football Focus grade in 2020. Hopefully he can put it all together in 2021. Oh, and give us more slide tackles.

Ronnie Harrison – Safety – 2020 team, Jacksonville Jaguars/Cleveland Browns

Needing safety help last year after some injuries, Andrew Berry traded a third round pick for Ronnie Harrison. There had been flashes of him being a good safety in Jacksonville, and when he came to Cleveland, there was an immediate impact. Defensive Coordinator Joe Woods wants to run a lot of Dime packages with three safeties on the field, so Harrison should have a significant role on the defense. He finished with a 74.7 Pro Football Focus grade and a pick-six interception. If he stays healthy.

Grant Delpit – Safety – 2020 team, Cleveland Browns

It was devastating last year in training camp when Grant Delpit went down with a torn achilles. The hype around him was real and fans were dying to see him in action. Joe Woods had plans to use him in various ways, but had to change up his defense completely due to his injury. Delpit was a force in college, finishing with 8 interceptions and 120 tackles. His rehab is going very well and should be good to go for game one of the 2021 season.

Greedy Williams – Cornerback – 2020 team, Cleveland Browns

It is easy to forget about Greedy Williams since he missed all of 2020 due to nerve damage. At one point, Greedy’s career was in jeopardy. But after all that uncertainty, Greedy appears to be good to go for the 2021 season. It will be very interesting to see if he can win the starting job over Greg Newsome, but with whatever happens he will have a role in the nickel or rotating on the outside. In 2019, Greedy showed flashes and finished with a mediocre 54.6 Pro Football Focus grade. This is a big year for Williams to prove he can be a starter.

The most underappreciated Browns player going into 2021

Underrated Browns player is….

By: Michael Welsh

The Cleveland Browns definitely are not lacking star power on either side of the ball, with players such as Odell Beckham Jr, Jarvis Landry, Baker Mayfield, Myles Garrett, and Denzel Ward. A lot of fans know plenty about each of these players. On every team, there is always one or two players that rarely get talked about, but are extremely vital to the team’s success. Cleveland actually has several players like this. Wide receiver Rashard Higgins and Center J.C. Tretter come to mind. Even more under-appreciated than them is Guard Wyatt Teller, who had a monster year in 2020.

Before his time in Cleveland, Teller played for the Buffalo Bills and was a relatively unheard-of player. The Browns traded for him in August of 2019, giving up only a 5th and 6th round draft pick. At the time, Browns fans just thought it was another body for the questionable offensive line room. Teller played 476 snaps and received a 60.3 Pro Football Focus in 2018 before coming to Cleveland, so many perceived him as an average player.

In 2019 with the Browns, Teller played 559 snaps and finished with a 56.7 grade. Even though he didn’t dazzle, there were moments where he was extremely physical and displayed characteristics of being a good player. It really came down to if he could put it all together. After the disastrous 2019 season in Cleveland, many wondered how the Browns roster would look in 2020, especially the offensive line that gave up 40 sacks on quarterback Baker Mayfield.

Fast forward to 2020 and the Browns hire Kevin Stefanski as the head coach and he brings in Bill Callahan to be the offensive line coach, which is arguably the smartest thing he’s done thus far. Callahan has a reputation as the best offensive line coach in all of football. It took little time for that to show as the Browns had the best offensive line in all of football in 2020, per PFF. The shining star on the line was Wyatt Teller, who looked like a completely different player as he manhandled opposition each week. The holes he opened up for Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt were massive and his pass blocking was top notch as well. He finished 2020 with a 92.9 grade from PFF, a major step up from his average grades in the previous years.

Where it gets even more eye opening is how the offense performed when he missed four games. At one point in the season, the Browns averaged 6.8 yards per carry with Teller on the field, and 3.9 when he wasn’t. They also were averaging 197.7 yards per game with him and 95.5 without him. In total after the season ended, they averaged 175 yards with and 85 without. That is a substantial drop in production from just one player. In addition to that, they averaged a 9.2 blown block pressure rate without him and 5.5. rate with him. So not only did he drastically affect the run game, but the passing game as well. To take it even further, the team was 8-2 with Teller and 3-3 without him. That is incredibly impressive considering he isn’t even a position player. Sometimes those big boys on the offensive line can make all of the difference, and Teller was a testament to that.

As if the stats with and without him aren’t compelling, actually watching the games and seeing the difference on Sundays was incredible. The Browns had trouble running the ball as effectively on the right side and it showed in key games that Teller missed. His play recognition and footwork were fantastic, and they only got better as the season went on. A lot of this is because of Bill Callahan’s elite coaching, but some of it shows that Teller had these abilities all along, he just needed someone to help unlock them. Teller is also loved by his teammates and displays leadership on the sidelines, most notably with the “Same old Browns” mic’d up clip from the Wild Card game in Pittsburgh. Teller helped lead Cleveland to their first playoff win since 1994.

There is no doubt that Wyatt Teller is the most under-appreciated player on Cleveland’s roster. Maybe not by Browns fans, but fans of the NFL and national media rarely acknowledge him or even know who he is. Offensive linemen are rarely stars, but if fans know who Quenton Nelson is, then they need to know who Teller is. The numbers don’t lie. It is absolutely stunning that he did not get selected to the Pro Bowl or wasn’t named First or Second Team All-Pro. Those things just prove how underrated he is.

Maybe in 2021 Teller can continue his elite production and get noticed more around the league. Until then, Browns fans can sleep well at night knowing that he is a part of the offensive line, hopefully for years to come if General Manager Andrew Berry can get a contract extension done.

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