Three yards and a cloud of dust won’t cut it in AFC North anymore, and draft proves it

Cincy decided to pair Joe Burrows up with his old playmate Ja’Marr Chase, rather than draft an O-lineman.
Cincy decided to pair Joe Burrows up with his old playmate Ja’Marr Chase, rather than draft an O-lineman.
Image: AP

When I think of the AFC North, I think of smashmouth football. I think of Jerome Bettis vs. Ray Lewis. I think of physical, hard-hitting games, ending in scores like 13-9. I think of heavy-set run formations, with three yards and a cloud of dust, accompanied by some of the best defensive players across the board in NFL history. Even though the game has changed, I still feel like this personality and ideology in the AFC North has persisted.

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No team ran the ball more the past two seasons than the Baltimore Ravens, in large part because of the absurd running ability of quarterback Lamar Jackson. Third on the list last season was the Cleveland Browns, with their duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt in the backfield. There’s only one problem with this idea — it’s not working in the playoffs.

The class of the AFC is the Kansas City Chiefs, who won the Super Bowl two years ago and made it back but lost this February. All they did was reload and retool the offensive line in impressive fashion, giving Patrick Mahomes and company the time and protection they need to continue to tear teams apart with their high-flying offense. Behind them, the Buffalo Bills leapt into the elite conversation last season, with the addition of receiver Stefon Diggs helping quarterback Josh Allen take a massive step forward. Without an aerial attack, theRavens scored only three points against the Bills in the Divisional round, while the Browns couldn’t manage to beat a Chiefs team that lost Mahomes to a concussion in the third quarter.

Something has to change if teams in the AFC North want to make a Super Bowl run, and they’re acknowledging that. Cleveland leaned on defense early in the draft since they are bringing back every offensive starter from 2020, but the rest of the division invested in top-tier playmakers on offense. The Bengals took the first wide receiver in the draft in Ja’Marr Chase, pairing him with his former LSU quarterback Joe Burrow (and this despite a glaring need to better protect their QB). The Steelers took running back Najee Harris, their first offensive skill player taken in the first round since Rashard Mendenhall in 2008 (!), giving them a smooth runner who can also excel in the passing game. The Ravens selected wide receiver Rashod Bateman, giving Jackson a talented option that they hope will become his number one target.

Defense still wins championships, as the Buccaneers demonstrated, and in no way do these teams need to abandon the rushing attack. However, balance is critical to success, and being able to put up points is becoming increasingly important to success in the NFL, and especially in the AFC. The prolific rushing attack is one way to go about things, but as was exposed in the playoffs last year, offenses need to be able to win in numerous ways to counter a defensive game plan and various game scripts.

It’s a case of keeping up with Mahomes. When the opposing offense is capable of hanging 40 points on you at will, responding by running the ball simply doesn’t cut it. The AFC North will not be able to climb that final mountain on anything other than the arms of their quarterbacks, and the way they drafted reflects it.