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AFC North Preview: Healthy Ravens return, but don’t forget about the Steelers

Najee Harris

Najee Harris
Photo: Getty Images

The favorites in the AFC North are the Cincinnati Bengals and the Baltimore Ravens. The Bengals scratched and clawed their way to the Super Bowl last season, and were a handful of plays away from winning the game. Injuries derailed the Ravens’ 2021 season before the train left the station, and they are looking to contend for a Super Bowl in 2022 as most sportsbooks have them listed as the favorite to win the North.

Jackson missed five games, the running backs missed every game, the defensive backfield was gutted and the offensive line was undermanned. If there was ever a team to bet on simply for luck it’s the Ravens because if they’re as injured this season as they were last season, someone in the Ravens’ organization is due for a billion-dollar Mega Millions win to balance out the universe.

Surprise alternate outcome: Steelers have enough talent to win the division

What the Steelers haven’t lacked in recent years are playmakers. On both sides of the ball, the Steelers have players who can produce viral highlights and swing a game in a single moment. There are two choices for the best pass rusher in the NFL, the Browns’ Myles Garrett or the Steelers’ T.J. Watt. Garrett is the better physical specimen, but even with Pittsburgh missing two starting defensive linemen for much of the 2021 season, Watt still won Defensive Player of the Year, tallying 22.5 sacks on the season (.5 sacks off the record). There’s also Minkah Fitzpatrick always lurking in the defensive backfield ready to stop a drive in pass defense or blow up a running play.

Then on offense, even with poor offensive line play and Roethlisberger’s age they still weren’t the worst unit in the league. They were in the bottom third, but were able to get enough splash plays from Najee Harris and Diontae Johnson — who just received a new contract — to clinch that seventh playoff spot.

Harris is the Steelers’ new Le’Veon Bell with 307 carries and 74 receptions as a rookie.

As much as that Steelers offense struggled to get the ball down the field in the passing game, Johnson still caught 107 passes for 1,161 yards and eight touchdowns. Some Steelers fans might be disappointed in Chase Claypool, but he managed to both average 14-plus yards per reception and gain more than 800 yards receiving even with the quarterback woes of the last two seasons. The Steelers also selected George Pickens from the 2021 National Champion Georgia Bulldogs. The 6-foot-3 Pickens was a five-star recruit and the fourth-best high school wide receiver in America in 2019 per 24/7 sports.

Reinforcements have been added to the Steelers’ offensive line by bringing in James Daniels and Mason Cole, and it would be very difficult to not improve upon last year’s production. Also, as maligned as Mitchell Trubisky has been throughout his career, he’s better than any quarterback who started for the Steelers in 2020 or 2021, and if he can’t get the job done, rookie Kenny Pickett has looked great in recent weeks. The Steelers may not have the deepest team, but that talent that they do have only needs a handful of plays to change a game.

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