‘AFC North Football’ is a term that for many fondly describes the physical nature of the games played between the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals. It is typified by hard-nosed defense, down-field running, and the occasional dirty hit.
However, this description of play means much more than how each team turns up to play on game day. It impacts how the Steelers approach the NFL Draft, which free agents are re-signed, who gets contract extensions and ultimately how the team spends its precious cap resources.
According to Over The Cap, in 2020 the AFC North will have 3 teams among the league’s smallest spenders on offense, with the Bengals (25th) spending $91,729,667, the Steelers (26th) spending $91,558,370 and the Ravens (32nd) spending $64,538,748. These numbers clearly indicate what most of us already know — defense is the hallmark of the division — and it’s no surprise this is set to continue in 2020, with the emphasis that recent Super Bowl caliber teams have placed on having a stout defense.
In looking at key similarities for offensive salary cap allocation within the decision, the AFC North adopts a dissimilar approach to wide-receiver spend, whereby the Steelers are ranked last in the NFL spending only $8,290,606 in 2020 and the Ravens (29th) set to spend only $14,715,851. Conversely, the Browns (4th) and Bengals (2nd) are set to spend over $36 million on their wide-receiving corps.
So what’s the key difference between these four teams’ two approaches? The significant investment of draft capital by the Steelers & Ravens in providing their quarterbacks with cheap and deep wideout rooms, while the Bengals and Browns are busy paying A.J. Green, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry to support their rookie-deal quarterbacks.
One of the biggest surprises — and similarities — in offensive spend in the AFC North is at the tight end, with the Bengals (15th) spending $11,303,097, Steelers (16th) spending $10,948,131, Ravens (18th) spending $9,632,498 and Browns (19th) spending $9,368,049. This is less than 4 ranks difference and $2 million to separate an entire division within the NFL, a trend only nearly matched by the AFC South, who interestingly are the intraconference division pairing for the AFC North in 2020.
When it comes to the quarterback spending and Ben Roethlisberger’s big salary cap number, which we know will be even bigger in 2021, the Steelers lead their AFC North Rivals in 9th position in the league at $26,929,620, while ranking 32nd for spend on running backs at $3,747,089, compared to the Browns’ $8,530,903 (19th), Ravens’ $8,596,463 (18th) and Bengals’ $9,909,931 (16th).
Salary cap spending on the offensive line is where the AFC North again adopts a split approach. It could be considered “offensive” for Lamar Jackson and Joe Burrow, who certainly better be prepared to run (Burrow) or keeping running (Lamar), because the Ravens (32nd) are spending just $25,183,920 and Bengals (29th) only $28,622,268 on keeping them upright in 2020. Meanwhile, the Steelers (14th) will allocate $41,642,924 to protecting Big Ben and the Browns (13th) will spend $41,846,829 to help Baker Mayfield manage the likes of T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward and Bud Dupree.
Let’s flip to the AFC North’s spending on defense. While each team has significant differences in their overall spending to their divisional rivals, there are some clear similarities to how Steelers, Ravens, Bengals and Browns structure their secondaries. At safety, the Steelers (25th) and Browns (22nd) are closely aligned spending $8,222,831 and $8,706,393 respectively, while the Bengals (14th - $15,642,405) and Ravens (5th - $22,343,110) sit in the top half of the league for spend at the position. Instead it’s at cornerback where the AFC North’s fierce rivals adopt the same approach to spending or position emphasis, with the Ravens (3rd) at $34,472,511, the Bengals (4th) at $29,733,430, the Steelers (8th) at $25,074,577, and the Browns (14th) at $20,552,070 among the NFL’s biggest spenders.
Salary cap spending on both linebackers and edge rushers positions in 2020 give great insight into which teams are preparing their defenses for the typical hard-nose battles of AFC North football. The Steelers (17th) and Ravens (16th) are set to spend just over $22 million on edge rushers respectively, while the Browns (10th) will spend bigger at $31,110,645 and the Bengals (21st) much less at $16,839,288. Cap allocation to linebackers tells a similar story, with the Steelers (8th) at $34,741,482 and Ravens (12th) at $26,741,713 in top third of the league for spend at the position, while the Browns (30th) and Bengals (32nd) are currently set to spend less than $7.5 million in 2020. For the Steelers and Ravens, who are considered the two leading contenders of the division, there is little coincidence and much similarity lo to how they are gearing up their 2020 defense.
The ‘Interior Defensive Line’, like that of the cornerback position, demonstrates the similarities in prioritizing positional defensive spend, with all the AFC North teams ranked in the top half of the NFL. Spending is led by the Steelers (1st) at $38,732,158, the Ravens (5th) at $33,899,319, the Bengals (8th) at $29,396,394 and the Browns (15th) at $23,016,223.
What does this tell us about ‘AFC North Football’ in 2020? Teams, especially the Steelers, must have a running back room ready to step up in the face of interior pressure and high-caliber or Pro Bowl level offensive line to give their quarterbacks time to look downfield.
For the Steelers, who have the cheapest and most junior running back corps in the division, the offensive line must keep Ben Roethlisberger upright and healthy against the high-caliber (or at least expensive) defensive linemen of the AFC North such as Calais Campbell, Geno Atkins and Sheldon Richardson. Roethlisberger also needs to use the Steelers’ talent at tight end in Eric Ebron and Vance McDonald to be both creative and safe with the football against the likes of Denzel Ward, Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters and William Jackson III.
This offensive approach will then allow the Steelers’ defensive leaders in T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Joe Haden, Steven Nelson and Minkah Fitzpatrick to play typical ‘AFC North Football’ on defense, feasting on inferior offensive lines and poor quarterback play, without having to be on the field for more than half the game like they were in 2019.