Fans of the AFC North are treated to two head to head matches to start the 2017 NFL season. The Steelers visit the Browns and the Ravens visit the Bengals. It’s likely to be the only time the Browns and Bengals can say that they’re undefeated!
The injury bug has already bitten in the AFC North, with both the Browns and the Bengals first round picks out with injury. Neither first overall pick Myles Garret nor top receiving pick Ross are able to play this week. The loss of Garrett is significant to a Browns team that won only one game last year. Garrett has impressed in pre-season and it’s disappointing for Browns fans that they’ll have to wait a while longer to see him in action. Over in Baltimore, corner Marlon Humphrey has missed time but is expected to play.
Steelers vs Browns
The Steelers boast one of the NFL’s most dangerous offenses when all the pieces are on the field. Martavis Bryant returns after being suspended all of last year and will benefit once again from the attention Antonio Brown demands (he stacked up 106 catches, 1,284 yards, 12 TD’s last year). Ben Roethlisberger will look to prove he’s still a top tier QB against a young Browns secondary and will also have tight end Jesse James to look to should the deep passing game not open up. Oh, and the Steelers will field Le’Veon Bell who rushed for a devastating 1,268 yards in just 12 games and added another 616 receiving. If that wasn’t enough they also picked up former Pitt running back and fan favourite James Conner in the draft.
Whilst the Browns will likely be overpowered in Week One, there is cause for optimism in Cleveland. During pre-season the Browns defence has been much improved and carried the team to a 4-0 pre-season record. At times they’ve been flying round the football. College sensation Jabril Peppers, who is listed at safety but may also pop up at linebacker and even special team, is one of the most talented players in the draft. If the Browns can figure out the correct way to use him he could be a player to build the team around. One of last year’s rookies, defensive end Carl Nassib, will be expected to pick up the pass rushing slack for the missing Myles. Despite the Browns switching to a scheme which fits Nassib better he’s likely to struggle on Sunday against man mountain Alejandro Villanuev. Defensive tackle Danny Shelton will need a strong game to launch his 2017 campaign, although he looks to be carrying an injury.
That being said the Browns still look to have problems at QB. They will give rookie DeShone Kizer his first opportunity to start. The second round pick should fare better than last year’s QB options as the Browns invested heavily in the line during free agency. They spent big money to sign Kevin Zeitler and T.J.Lang (who arrives well aware of what it takes to win, coming from the Green Bay Packers). But Kizer is still relatively untested against first team defences. He’ll have to learn quickly against a 3-4 defence that is likely to throw multiple looks at the young signal caller and hopes to have found another star linebacker in first round pick TJ Watt. Those interested in match ups should look out for how Watt fares against 10 time All Pro tackle Joe Thomas.
Swapping sides – Former Browns first round pick Joe Haden was cut by Cleveland and will look to prove that he’s healthy and can return to a Pro Bowl for the Steelers. Meanwhile, the Browns added inconsistent wide receiver Sammie Coates, trading a sixth-round draft pick to the Steelers as they tried to assemble their 53 for the season.
Ravens vs Bengals
One of the less heralded additions in the 2017 off season was that of Jeremy Maclin to the Ravens. Cut by the Chiefs, Maclin should immediately become Joe Flacco’s best friend. He’ll look to rebound from a below par, injury shortened, 2016. Flacco is expected to start after missing the entire preseason with a back injury. Also returning from injury will be receiver Breshad Perriman and running back Danny Woodhead.
The Bengals saw fit to let two of its starting offensive lineman go in free agency. There’s no doubt that Andrew Whitworth and Zeitler (who they’ll now face twice a year as he lines up for the Browns) will be missed. They both graded well last year, despite the team allowing Andy Dalton to be sacked a ridiculous 41 times. This is not going to be a relaxing time for Dalton. The Baltimore Ravens defense ranked No. 1 through parts of the 2016 season and has added safety Tony Jefferson to pair with star Eric Weddle in addition to former Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr to make plays. Despite missing games in the pre-season, first round pick Marlon Humphrey, who forced a fumble in the final preseason game against the Saints has looked impressive and should also see game time. If the Bengals can keep Dalton upright and he can return to mistake free football after an unimpressive 2016, then superstar receiver A.J. Green, Tight End Tyler Eifert and running backs Giovani Bernard and Joe Mixon have the skills to score points in a hurry.
With linebacker Vontaze Burfict and cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones both serving multi game suspensions and promising Bengals rookie receiver John Ross likely out for multiple games with a knee injury its entirely possible that the Bengals replace Browns this season at the bottom of the NFC North!
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