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The AFC North Is Ground Zero for the Evolution of NFL Offenses

One team is running an offense purportedly never seen before. Another is bringing Sean McVay’s principles to the AFC. And we haven’t even gotten to the one with Odell Beckham Jr. yet. Welcome to the most interesting division in football.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There is only one division in football for which I visited every team during training camp this summer. This is partly to do with geography—no other division has its teams bunched so closely together. But mostly, it’s because I find it to be the most fascinating one. It’s the AFC North: It has Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield, and Ben Roethlisberger. It does not, notably, have Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, Joe Flacco, Hue Jackson, and Marvin Lewis. It has one team running Sean McVay’s trendy offense after hiring one of his assistants and one team running an offense that the head coach said has never been seen before in the NFL. One team spent an offseason acquiring stars like Odell Beckham Jr. and another is doing what The Athletic recently dubbed “The Grand Experiment” for valuing chemistry over stars. I have no idea who is going to win the AFC North, and that is the point: It is a division stacked with potential, question marks, and fireworks.

When I was in each city, I wasn’t just curious about how coaches and executives viewed their teams, but also how they viewed the competition. Each team in this division has set themselves up to play the others. Defending each of their offenses presents vastly different propositions. If you want to know where the sport of football is going or where it’s been, you can start here.

I asked Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo whether he had a flexible athlete who could hang with, say, Lamar Jackson, and he answered candidly: He didn’t know yet. “Lamar Jackson is pretty fast. He’s as fast as the corners,” he said. “To say we’ve got one guy who can put his cape on and chase him, we’re still working through that. To say that a safety or linebacker is going to track him down, we’re still working through that.”

Anarumo said the key to existing in this division, where “each quarterback brings different problems,” is to be as athletic as possible.

“You have guys who can run so when the play breaks down, that’s when those explosive plays come,” he says. “You have to be as athletic as possible because they can be as dangerous when they pull the ball down and run as they can be in the pocket.”

He’s not alone in this belief. In fact, it’s all anyone on the defensive side of the ball talks about.

“Now, these defensive linemen we’ve got, they are big and athletic and they can run,” Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler told me. “We have two outside linebackers who are playing defensive end who can do multiple things and we gotta be able to run people down.”

The Steelers drafted linebacker Devin Bush in the first round for this very reason: The game is evolving in so many different directions that the solution is mostly to assemble a roster that’s as athletic as possible and figure it out from there. “Defense, in very general terms, is going sideways instead of back and forth. It’s a very lateral game instead of a vertical game.” This is something Steelers GM Kevin Colbert has considered since 2014, he said, when the team drafted linebacker Ryan Shazier in the first round. “I thought we were ahead of the curve because Ryan played at Ohio State against the type of football that’s played in the NFL now,” he said.

Colbert believes the game is played significantly closer to the line of scrimmage—and especially within 20 yards—than in generations past. This matters in team building. It especially applies to the Ravens, whose use of the run game will keep most of the action near the line. Jackson is one of the game’s most exciting players, and defending horizontally, as the Steelers have built their defense to do, will be of particular importance. “In our personnel meetings we always talk about how inside linebackers don’t use more than 50 percent of their speed 90 percent of the time,” Colbert said.

“You have to take away their strengths,” Butler tells me. There is, of course, a problem: Mayfield, Jackson, and Roethlisberger have a lot of strengths. “Do you play the run against Baker Mayfield? No, you don’t because you have to play both with him. He likes to pass and can scramble. [Lamar Jackson will] play the ball down, and he’ll be gone with it. So maybe you work on keeping him in the pocket a bit more.”

From a team-building perspective, Butler mentions Mark Barron and Bush as flexible athletes who can play the horizontal game the Steelers want to employ.

“You’ve got to get hybrid linebackers who maybe have some strong safety in their background,” Butler said. “The no. 1 thing we have to have is speed. The other thing is that when the ball is out of your area, it doesn’t mean you are done playing the game. You’ve got to turn and run. We have to make sure our guy’s hustling to the ball at all times. Because that missed tackle is going to mean 25 to 30 yards.”

This is all a long way of saying that Jackson and Mayfield are very dangerous with the ball in their hands.

The division is interesting not simply because of how defenses will play the offenses. It’s also about how the offenses will have evolved from last year. The Ravens and the Browns both established what they were in the second half of last year: Baltimore unveiled the most run-heavy team in the league behind Jackson; Cleveland, after Hue Jackson’s firing and Tyrod Taylor’s benching, unveiled an innovative, efficient offense with Mayfield and new coach Freddie Kitchens.

Matt Weiss, the Ravens running backs coach, said the new offense changes what his team needs from a personnel perspective. He mentions Tony Dungy’s innovations two decades ago with the Cover 2 defense, which, he said, benefited from requiring a specific type of cornerback that was less expensive than a pricey shutdown corner. He said the Ravens offense could benefit from the same sort of phenomenon, cornering the market on cheaper run blockers on the offensive line and, of course, taking advantage of the cheap market for running backs. “Hopefully it’s successful and people say, ‘We’re going to run the Ravens offense,’ like people used to talk about the Tampa defense,” Weiss said. “I hope it opens the door for more athletic quarterbacks like Lamar.”

No offensive plan is as scrutinized as the one happening in Pittsburgh. I went to Pittsburgh with a fairly basic question in mind: How do things change without Brown, who was traded to Oakland in the spring, and Bell, a flexible, pass-catching running back who sat out 2018 before departing in free agency this year? “We studied it,” Colbert said. He noted that the offensive numbers from the running backs weren’t far off without Bell last season, owing to the emergence of James Conner. “We don’t have certain players on offense, so you take a hundred-something catches away,” Colbert said. “Those catches—I don’t think Ben [Roethlisberger] is going to have a hundred-something less completions.”

Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said he won’t know how the offense will change until he sees how defenses react to a team without Brown, who received so much attention. “Who gets that attention now? Juju [Smith-Schuster]? Vance McDonald?”

Fichtner said the offense will change simply because Brown’s unique talent meant Roethlisberger threw to him early and often—“Even when there were many times it was not the best decision to go there”—producing historically good results in most years. Fichtner thinks that Smith-Schuster, last seen tallying 1,426 yards last year, “has a movement appealing to Ben’s eye as a wideout,” he said. “He has a unique run after tackle. He’s a load. Hines Ward was the same. He gives you that feeling and a confidence that he’s going to go get it.”

Anarumo, a former Purdue assistant, said college experience will help when game-planning for the endless possibilities these offenses present. Cleveland and Baltimore will certainly incorporate college elements. The Bengals hired Tem Lukabu from Mississippi State as their linebackers coach. “They lead the nation in defense in the SEC, so we’ve got a good feel of, ‘Hey, this was working last year in college, so maybe we’ll see some of this,’” Anarumo said.

Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said that drafting uniquely smart players was a priority because of how quickly schemes can change now. “There’s a lot of window dressing,” Taylor said. “For linebackers and safeties we’ve drafted, they’ve looked at that stuff for four years in college.”

Everything that is happening in the sport is happening in this division. It is the most unpredictable division, and at this point, probably the most entertaining one. There are innovative schemes, great athletes, and good coaches. When my colleague Robert Mays and I made our annual list of teams that could win the Super Bowl this week, only two divisions—the AFC North and NFC North—had three teams on both of our lists. The NFC teams, however, have changed very little since last year. That division is full of quarterbacks and stars who will simply do what they did last year. The AFC North, however, has three teams that can win the Super Bowl, a handful of players who can change football, and, well, a whole hell of a lot of fireworks.