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Every AFC North team’s biggest hurdle for success in 2017

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No NFL team is perfect and every team in the AFC North has some obstacles to overcome in 2017.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The AFC North has always been a competitive division. Save for the absolute futility of the Cleveland Browns, the division had maintained a respectable amount of success since realignment created the division from the remains of the old AFC Central in 2002. While the Pittsburgh Steelers boast the most division championships (seven), the Bengals and Ravens both claim a healthy number of victories themselves (four each).

In 2017, the level of competition should be as fierce as ever with both the Bengals and Ravens expected to improve from poor results in 2016 and the Steelers showing improvement in the offseason after an already impressive 2017 season. Even the Browns will be improved this year, though that’s not saying much after their 1-15 season.

Cleveland Browns

Fatal Flaw: Years of incompetence

It would be silly to put much importance on previous seasons when determining how the results of this season will pan out. However, in the case of the Browns, years of mismanagement by the front office, failure to stick by key players (despite huge investments) and a revolving door at head coach have put Cleveland at a severe disadvantage. As of right now, there appears to be no timetable for a resurgence from the team, and that will likely continue as long as they practice a policy of instability. Though, there’s some semblance of light at the end of the tunnel if the Browns’ front office can just trust Hue Jackson and let him work his magic.

Consider the Bengals as an example. Following the death of team owner Paul Brown and the ascension of his son Mike Brown to his chair, the Bengals’ instability kept them in absolute turmoil for years. Three head coaches and 12 different starting quarterbacks between 1992 and 2002 only came as a result of the Bengals failing to stand by players and coaches, scaring talent away and creating a suffocating losing culture. The Browns, by comparison, have been stuck in a losing culture since returning to the league 18 years ago and have seen nine different head coaches and 28 starting quarterbacks during that time.

In both cases, that’s roughly an average of one new head coach every two years and more starting quarterbacks than seasons. The Bengals stopped the cycle of futility by overhauling their front office structure and committing to a policy of sticking by their players, which is exactly what the Browns need to do if they ever want any hope of turning the franchise around.

Baltimore Ravens

Fatal Flaw: One-dimensional offense

Defense has always been a central focus of the Baltimore Ravens. In fact, they won their first Super Bowl in the 2000 NFL season on the backs of an all-time great defense and a passable offense. Granted, offensive firepower was a big reason why they won their second Super Bowl in the 2012 NFL season. But, those developments are more recent, and right now defense is clearly the less troubled of the two units.

On offense, the Ravens have a sub-par running game. They haven’t had a 1,000 yard rusher since Justin Forsett ran for 1,266 yards in 2014, and they haven’t had a ‘franchise’ running back since Ray Rice unceremoniously left the league in 2013 on the heels of domestic violence issues. The Ravens signed Danny Woodhead this offseason to compete with Terrance West and Lorenzo Taliaferro. However, what Baltimore really need is a top young talent at the position who they can develop into a long-term starter. Kenneth Dixon could be that guy and is also in the mix to see significant playing time this year. Until the running game gets figured out, the Ravens will be forced to put an unhealthy amount of pressure on their passing game.

Given all of the turnover on the Ravens’ offensive line this season (lost starting RT Ricky Wagner, RG Vladimir Ducasse, and C Jeremy Zuttah), establishing an effective running game is going to be extremely difficult. This season, the Ravens better hope they see the same Joe Flacco who threw for 22 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions in 2012, rather than the one who threw for 19 touchdowns and 22 interceptions the following season.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Fatal Flaw: Weak secondary

There are plenty of flaws that could arguably spell doom for the Steelers in 2017. An aging quarterback who has seen more than his fair share of injuries, offseason turmoil in regards to contract extensions, poor decision making from certain players, and a surprisingly average defensive unit are all obstacles the Steelers must overcome in 2017, if they want to put together the second repeat division championship in AFC North history.

However, the weakest link on the Steelers is, without a doubt, their secondary. It’s no secret defensive coordinator Keith Butler has had a rough time filling the legendary Dick LeBeau’s shoes. His schemes are less aggressive and more predictable, highlighting the obvious depth deficiencies in the secondary. Last year, they ranked 16th in passing yards allowed per game (242.6), despite boasting the ninth most effective pass rush in the NFL (38 sacks).

The Steelers seem to be aware their secondary is an issue and have taken steps to plug the hole. Over the last three drafts, they have selected four defensive backs in the first three rounds, almost all of whom are expected to start in 2017. That’s a lot of young, inexperienced talent in the secondary for other teams to exploit. The idea is, in the long-run, it will pan out and create a stable system for years to come, but for now it is risky to put so many young players in key roles.

Cincinnati Bengals

Fatal Flaw: Offensive Line

The Bengals’ recent rebuild has led to quite a few issues on the roster for fans to worry about. But, perhaps the biggest issue was the loss of both Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler, the team’s two best linemen, in the offseason. The Bengals’ offensive line needed some change after allowing the seventh most sacks in the NFL last year (41). But, shedding the unit’s two best players likely isn’t the kind of change that was necessary.

Cedric Ogbuehi struggled mightily at right tackle in 2016, and is now expected to take over for Whitworth at left tackle in 2017. Jake Fisher also struggled at the position in limited playing time, and is the expected starter at right tackle this year. In the place of Zeitler, the Bengals brought back the inconsistent and penalty-prone Andre Smith, who will be making the switch from his natural right tackle position to right guard.

The only consistent factors on the offensive line are Clint Boling, who is coming off a shoulder surgery, and Russell Bodine, who has been notoriously inconsistent as the Bengals’ starting center. Needless to say, if the Bengals want to re-establish an effective running game or keep Andy Dalton off the ground in 2017, they are going to need their offensive line to perform well above expectations.