4 Teams, 1 Crown: Analyzing the Bengals, Browns, Ravens, and Steelers’ Biggest Weaknesses in the Crowded AFC North Division Race

Article Highlights:

  • The AFC North race can change dramatically from week to week
  • The Bengals, Browns, Ravens, and Steelers each have glaring weaknesses
  • The four teams battle each other for supremacy in Week 12
The Browns battle the Ravens and the Steelers take on the Bengals for AFC North supremacy
Baker Mayfield of the Cleveland Browns reacts after game against the Baltimore Ravens | Jason Miller/Getty Images; Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin during game against the Cincinnati Bengals | Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The AFC North looks like the best division in the NFL right now. The Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens, and Pittsburgh Steelers have a legitimate chance to win the division title in 2021. Week 12 could go a long way, as Cincinnati faces Pittsburgh and Cleveland travels to Baltimore.

With a narrow margin separating the teams in the standings, this could literally come down to a game of inches. Here are each of the four teams’ biggest weaknesses, heading into a pivotal week.

Cincinnati Bengals: Inconsistent offensive line

Poor offensive line play cost Joe Burrow the last six games of his rookie season. Perhaps the Cincinnati Bengals should’ve made that a priority, heading into the 2021 season. The front office certainly tried to put a band-aid on it.

The Bengals controversially passed over offensive tackle Penei Sewell for wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase in the 2021 NFL Draft. While it raised some eyebrows at first, Cincinnati made the right decision. Chase has been as advertised, and then some.

Led by Jonah Williams, Quinton Spain, and Trey Hopkins, the Bengals’ offensive line has enjoyed some good moments. However, the unit’s inconsistency could plague them down the stretch. Cincinnati has allowed 28 sacks on Burrow, third-most in the NFL.

The other AFC North teams all have fierce pass rushes, which could spell trouble for the Bengals if the offensive line doesn’t come to play on a given week.

Cleveland Browns: A hobbled Baker Mayfield

The Cleveland Browns entered 2021 with massive expectations, which always seemed too lofty. Drama and turmoil have defined their season up to this point. With Odell Beckham Jr. no longer in town, there shouldn’t be any more excuses, right?

The hype train started when Cleveland destroyed the Bengals in the first game without OBJ. Then, it quickly faded when the New England Patriots gave the Browns a dose of their own medicine in Week 10. It’s unclear what to make of this team.

However, one thing that is clear is that Baker Mayfield is not 100%. He’s been battling multiple injuries, including to his shoulder. According to The Athletic, “All signs point to coach Kevin Stefanski sticking with Mayfield as his starter.”

Mayfield hasn’t played well since the Cincinnati game, which is concerning as he prepares for a crucial matchup against Baltimore with AFC North implications.

Baltimore Ravens: Defending the pass

The Baltimore Ravens currently hold a slight lead in the AFC North, but they have a serious problem on their hands. Teams don’t fear Wink Martindale’s defense in 2021, but mainly because of the secondary.

Week after week, the Ravens’ defense surrenders a big play that could potentially change the outcome of the game. Tyler Huntley saved the unit in Week 11 against the Bears after it gave up a late Andy Dalton touchdown bomb.

Baltimore has fared well against the run, but defending the pass has been an entirely different story. The Ravens are allowing just over 281 passing yards per game to opposing offenses. While not a big number, they’ve given up 16 passing touchdowns.

The injuries to Marcus Peters and DeShon Elliott have really cost this defense, which has blown a lot of coverages throughout the season. The Ravens have to limit the big plays, or else they’ll be counting on Lamar Jackson to bail them out every week.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Stopping the run

It’s difficult to know what to make of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Mike Tomlin’s squad doesn’t know its identity right now.

Pittsburgh is usually known for running the football and stopping the run. The Steelers haven’t done either particularly well in 2021. However, the defensive side of the ball is slightly more concerning.

The Steelers’ defense has allowed the most rushing yards per attempt (4.8), which ties the Minnesota Vikings. So much for the Steel Curtain. Injuries up front to Tyson Alualu and Stephon Tuitt have hurt Keith Butler’s unit tremendously. Teams that can’t stop the run have difficulty getting off the field, which is a recipe for disaster.

The Bengals, Browns, and Ravens all run the football well. This is a massive problem for a team trying to win the division or sneak into the playoffs.

The AFC North is wide open, and the four teams must exploit each others’ weaknesses to gain an edge.

All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference

RELATED: AFC North Strength of Schedule: Which Team Has the Inside Track to Win the Division At the Halfway Point?