You'll hear NFL teams talk a lot about winning their division as the first goal for their season.
The reason? The surest way to get into the playoffs is to win a division title, and it assures a home playoff game.
But to win that division title, teams should be as good as — if not better than — division opponents in a number of areas. That won't guarantee success, but it sure will help.
We continue our look at how the Steelers stack up against their AFC North opponents on a position-by-position basis.
Today, we look at off-ball linebackers:
The off-ball linebackers in the AFC North were dominated by the likes of Ray Lewis, James Farrior, Lawrence Timmons, Bart Scott, Ryan Shazier and C.J. Mosley at one time. Heck, even Vontaze Burfict, hate him as much as you want, was a highly talented player at the position.
The position is getting an extreme makeover. Most of the aforementioned players are long retired, or in the case of the two most recent stars, Shazier and Mosley, suffered a career-threatening injury or left in free agency, respectively.
That has meant the teams in the AFC North have been working hard in the draft the past couple of seasons to rebuild their off-ball linebacker positions.
In 2018, the Steelers added Devin Bush in the first round, while the Bengals added Germaine Pratt and the Browns Mack Wilson and Sione Takitaki in later rounds. This year, the Ravens went all in on a pair of linebackers early, taking Patrick Queen in the first round and Malik Harrison in the third, while the Bengals added two more young players there, Logan Wilson in the third round and Akeem Davis-Gaither in the fourth round. Not be left out, the Browns selected Jacob Phillips, Queen's teammate at LSU, in the fourth round.
All of those young players are talented. All fit the bill for what you're looking for in linebackers in today's game, with the ability to play the run and hold up in coverage. But they'll also be very prone to young player mistakes.
That's one reason the Steelers don't mind turning things back over to veteran Vince Williams beside Bush this season after he played more of a secondary role in 2019 to Mark Barron. With Bush now having a year under his belt, the team feels confident he won't be prone to make as many errors, which means he'll handle the coverage duties and allow Williams to be the thumper. And 2019 with Barron's release in a cap-related move, 2019 sixth-round draft pick Ulysees Gilbert will be expected to take on added duties.
The Ravens are counting on both Queen and Harrison to be starters, which could be difficult given the lack of on-field offseason programs in the NFL this year. They don't have many other options, as they allowed a number of regulars, including Patrick Onwuasor, to walk in free agency. The only holdovers are L.J. Fort, a former Steelers special teams ace, and Chris Board, who has never started an NFL game.
The Browns let veteran starters Christian Kirksey and Joe Schobert to walk in free agency this year, meaning Wilson, Phillips and Takitaki will likely be their starters. It's a very young group, with Wilson having the most experience as a third-year player.
The Bengals, meanwhile, have completely revamped what was the worst group of linebackers in the NFL, shedding veterans such as Nick Vigil and Preston Brown to go with their youngsters.
OFF-BALL LINEBACKER UNIT RANKINGS
- Steelers -- Bush, Williams, Gilbert, Robert Spillane
- Browns -- Wilson, Takitaki, Phillips, B.J. Goodson, Jermaine Grace
- Ravens -- Fort, Queen, Harrison, Board
- Bengals -- Pratt, Jordan Evans, Wilson, Josh Bynes, Davis-Gaither
Steelers fans look at the team's inside linebacker position as a potential weakness with the offseason losses of Barron and special teams ace Tyler Matakevich, but Williams is the most experienced player at the position in the division, while Bush was a top-10 draft pick a year ago and has the highest pedigree of any of the youngsters in the division. Williams' 15 sacks the past three seasons also leads all NFL inside linebackers. The depth is untested, but when compared to the rest of the division, it doesn't look so bad, especially to start the season. The rest of the division is largely based on projections since they haven't played a lot. The Browns have high hopes for Wilson and Takitaki in year two, enough to allow Kirksey and Schobert, a 2019 Pro Bowl player, walk. Queen got a lot of the publicity, but it was Phillips who actually called the defenses at LSU instead of Queen, a one-year starter. With Fort as their most experienced second-level player, the Ravens are banking on Queen and Harrison to pick things up quickly. Good luck with that. Fort was not known as the most cerebral player in his time with the Steelers and won't likely be of much help in that regard with the two rookies. Pratt has some talent and Wilson is promising, but the Bengals are still very weak at linebacker.
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