Breaking down the all the action in the AFC North ahead of Week 5:
Baltimore Ravens (2-2)
After losing two games in a row and the lead of the division, the Ravens have a chance to rebound against their biggest rival. The story surrounding Baltimore has been the uncharacteristically poor play from the defense. After finishing with the top-ranked unit a year ago, the Ravens currently rank 27th in total defense. Meanwhile, Baltimore ranks first in total offense. Despite this, the offense has been unable to overcome the backbreaking plays given up by the defense in the last two games.
While it’s true that the defense has been without cornerback Jimmy Smith and was without defensive tackle Brandon Williams last week, the unit must improve if the Ravens want to regain control of the division. Pittsburgh will most likely commit to a heavy run attack with running back James Conner, so Baltimore’s linebackers must exhibit more discipline to limit big plays on the ground.
Meanwhile, on offense, wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown could be due for a big game. The Steelers secondary remains questionable, currently ranking 19th in passing defense. Teams have adjusted for Brown’s deep speed by playing further back from him the past few weeks. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman needs to utilize Browns underneath ability to make cornerbacks pay and open up the deep passing attack again.
Pittsburgh Steelers (1-3)
After a blowout win against the Cincinnati Bengals and their first of the season, Pittsburgh finds themselves in the thick of the division race again. A win over the Ravens would be for the team many thought were dead after losing quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the season.
The biggest challenge for the Steelers will be Baltimore’s top-ranked offense, led by Lamar Jackson. Jackson has been an effective passer this season to pair with his deadly rushing ability, making him a nightmare to game plan for and defend. Rookie linebacker Devin Bush will be vital in containing Jackson. Bush’s sideline-to-sideline speed make him more equipped to limit the damage of Jackson’s outside runs than most linebackers.
Offensively, Pittsburgh will most likely want to run the ball heavily with Conner, which will, in turn, give quarterback Mason Rudolph easier throws off of play action. If the linebackers are sucked in, this will leave the middle of the defense vulnerable like in recent weeks. A number of key contributor for the Steelers offense has missed practice this week, including Conner, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, and tight end Vance McDonald.
Cincinnati Bengals (0-4)
Following a blowout loss to Pittsburgh on Monday night, Cincinnati has yet to win a game under rookie head coach Zac Taylor this season and remains dead last in the division. Week 5 brings a chance for the Bengals to finally enter the win column, however, as they play the similarly winless Arizona Cardinals.
To make matters worse for the Bengals, injuries continue to pile up. Wide receiver John Ross was placed on Injured Reserve this week with a shoulder injury. After being picked in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft, Ross was finally starting to live up to expectations. Cincinnati’s offense is now without two of its top weapons now with star receiver A.J. Green still sidelined. With offensive tackle Cordy Glenn still out, the offensive line remains a disaster as well. Terrell Suggs and Chandler Jones could present major problems for the Bengals offense.
Likewise, Cincinnati should have no problem pressuring rookie quarterback Kyler Murray behind his Arizona’s similarly poor offensive line. The biggest challenge will be covering the Cardinals multiple receivers in their Air Raid offense, which spreads teams out and exploits match ups.
Cleveland Browns (2-2)
After a statement divisional win over the Ravens, the Cleveland Browns have a chance to prove they are legit against the only undefeated team in the NFC, the 3-0 San Francisco 49ers on Monday Night Football.
Cleveland’s offense will face the playmaking third-ranked defense of San Francisco. The Browns still questionable offensive line will have their hardest challenge yet against the vaunted 49ers defensive line. From defensive tackle DeForest Buckner in the middle to Joey Bosa and Dee Ford on the edges, San Francisco has no shortage of pass rushers to make life difficult for quarterback Baker Mayfield. Look for either Odell Beckham Jr. or Jarvis Landry to potentially have big days as the 49ers are down two of their top cornerbacks in Ahkello Witherspoon and Jason Verrett.
Cleveland’s defense should have quite the challenge as well facing the excellently schemed Kyle Shanahan offense led by quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. San Francisco currently has the fourth-ranked offense. Tight end George Kittle remains their best weapon, but Shanahan has shown the ability to involve multiple guys on his offense and find success. The Browns may not be able to get by without top corners Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams against this offense.