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AFC North preview: Week 1

The race for the AFC North throne begins

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp handout photo

Baltimore Ravens

The defending AFC North champs enter the 2020 season with a chip on their shoulder after losing to the Titans in the divisional round of the playoffs following a 14-2 season. QB Lamar Jackson will be looking to prove that his unanimous MVP season was no fluke. Baltimore will host the Browns to start the season.

Offensively, the Ravens return almost the same starting lineup, albeit for one massive absence: Marshal Yanda. An exciting new addition to the offense is rookie RB J.K. Dobbins. It’s unclear how much playing time Dobbins will receive right out of the gate, but all indications point towards the Ohio State alum having a sizable role in his first season. Expect Jackson to attack Cleveland’s linebackers in the passing game, especially since Mack Wilson is doubtful to play on Sunday.

Baltimore’s defense features several new starters, however. Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe are new additions to the defensive line and rookie first-round pick Patrick Queen is set to start at inside linebacker. Third-year FS Deshon Elliott will start in place of Earl Thomas and nickel CB Tavon Young returns after missing all of the 2019 season with a neck injury. The defense will be tested against one of the best wide receiver corps in the league and the formidable RB duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.

The Ravens enter Sunday’s matchup with three players on the injury list: WR Chris Moore, RB Justice Hill, and rookie DT Justin Madubuike. Both Hill and Madubuike are listed as questionable to play while Moore is doubtful.

Cleveland Browns

The Browns enter the 2020 season looking to rebound after an extremely disappointing 2019 season. QB Baker Mayfield will look to regain the magic he brought to Cleveland as a rookie. New head coach Kevin Stefanski will look to unlock the potential of a star-studded offense.

The Browns field a much-improved offensive line with the additions of Jack Conklin in free agency and Jedrick Wills Jr. in the first round of the draft. The offensive line will be tested immediately against Baltimore’s revamped pass rush. Cleveland also signed TE Austin Hooper in free agency to add with former first-rounder David Njoku. WR Odell Beckham Jr. will look to regain his status as one of the league’s best at the receiver position after playing through injury in 2019.

Star pass-rusher Myles Garrett will finally retake the field for Cleveland after being suspended for hitting Steelers QB Mason Rudolph in the head with a helmet last season. Garrett had 10 sacks in the 10 games he played in 2019. The Browns also traded for S Ronnie Harrison from Jacksonville after rookie second-rounder Grant Delpit tore his Achilles. Cleveland’s linebacker corps enters Week 1 as a giant question mark following the departure of Joe Schobert in free agency and the knee injury to Wilson.

Along with Wilson, starting C J.C. Tretter and CB Greedy Williams are both in danger of missing the first game of the season.

Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals enter the season with newfound hope in the form of first-overall pick Joe Burrow at QB. Zac Taylor enters his second season as HC in Cincinnati after winning just two games in his first season.

2019 first-round pick Jonah Williams returns to help shore up the OT position after missing all of his rookie season. Star WR A.J. Green also missed the entirety of the 2019 season. Green provides a huge boost to an already solid WR corps that includes Tyler Boyd, John Ross, Auden Tate, and rookie second-rounder Tee Higgins. Burrow will be tested heavily against the vaunted defense of the Chargers on Sunday. Defensive ends Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram will look to take advantage of a questionable OL with one of the best secondaries in the league behind them.

Defensively, the Bengals debut a bevy of new faces, including DT D.J. Reader, DT Mike Daniels, ILB Josh Bynes, S Vonn Bell, and rookie ILB Logan Wilson. Reader and Daniels join an already ferocious line that includes Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, and Carl Lawson. Newly acquired CB Trae Waynes is expected to miss significant time with a torn pectoral.

The bad news for Cincinnati is that Atkins, Dunlap, and Daniels all appeared on the injury report, although it appears that Dunlap was simply given a rest day.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers are looking to rebound from a disappointing season in 2019. QB Ben Roethlisberger missed the majority of the season, resulting in Pittsburgh finishing with an 8-8 record and missing the playoffs for the second year in a row. With the return of the Hall of Famer at quarterback, Pittsburgh is set to be a playoff contender once again. They start their season against the Giants on Monday Night Football.

The Steelers will be without their best offensive lineman to start the season, as RG David DeCastro was listed out for Monday’s game. Second-year WR Diontae Johnson is listed as questionable with a calf injury as well. WR JuJu Smith-Schuster is entering a contract year intending to prove that he can be a top receiver again after only recording 552 receiving yards in 2019.

The biggest storyline for the Steelers is of course how Roethlisberger will look in his return from elbow surgery. If the 38-year-old still has it in him then Pittsburgh will be a dangerous team in the AFC.

Pittsburgh’s defense remains largely the same after a dominant 2019 season in which the unit finished fifth in total yards allowed, third in passing yards allowed, and first in takeaways with 38. History suggests that such a turnover rate will regress, but the Steelers should once again field one the league’s best defensives, led by recently re-signed DE Cameron Heyward.

Alongside DeCastro and Johnson, RB Anthony McFarland, FB Derek Watt, and LS Kameron Canaday are listed as questionable on the injury report.