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Late for Work 8/23: AFC North Is 'King,' Ranked NFL's Top Division

QB Tyler Huntley

AFC North Ranked as NFL's Top Division

It's no secret that the AFC is loaded with talented teams, and the AFC North figures to be especially competitive.

Last year, the Ravens and Bengals both made the playoffs, meeting in the Wild-Card round. Three teams finished above .500. This year, all four teams could contend for a playoff spot.

"The North is king this year because every team has a real shot to reach the postseason," Chadiha wrote.

"The Pittsburgh Steelers might be the worst squad on paper, but their preseason buzz is real. Quarterback Kenny Pickett is maturing quickly in his second season, the defense still has an assortment of playmakers and Mike Tomlin can coach his butt off. The Cleveland Browns are just as intriguing. Two straight losing seasons shouldn't obscure the fact that plenty of talent remains for a team that made the playoffs in 2020. They'll also have quarterback Deshaun Watson for a full season and a defense that should prosper under new coordinator Jim Schwartz."

That said, Chadiha believes the AFC North crown will go to either the Ravens or Cincinnati Bengals.

"The Ravens are eager to prove that quarterback Lamar Jackson can take his game to another level in an offense that is expected to feature a more dynamic passing attack," Chadiha wrote. "The Bengals are praying the calf strain that has sidelined quarterback Joe Burrow since early in training camp doesn't linger into the regular season. Right now, it appears to me that both Baltimore and Cincinnati are poised to make deep playoff runs."

The AFC took the top three spots in the rankings, with the East at No. 2 and West at No. 3.

Pundit Cautions to Temper Early Expectations for David Ojabo

Outside linebacker David Ojabo has been a standout at training camp but he hasn't made much of an impact in the Ravens' two preseason games.

Ojabo, who appeared in two regular-season games last season as he worked his way back from a torn Achilles during his pro day, has recorded one pressure from 21 pass-rushing snaps in preseason contests against the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Commanders, according to Pro Football Focus.

PFF’s Gordon McGuinness said that while Ojabo has a high ceiling, expectations for him to be an immediate difference-maker should be tempered.

"We saw the Ravens' 2022 second-round pick flash late last season, notably by forcing a fumble in their Week 18 game against the Cincinnati Bengals, prompting Ravens fans to get excited about Ojabo's potential with a full offseason behind him," McGuinness wrote. "The potential is very much still there after an impressive final season at Michigan in 2021, but his play through two weeks of preseason is enough to press pause on that excitement, at least for now.

"The Ravens added Jadeveon Clowney last week, which raises the floor of their edge defender — something that looks like it might be needed early in the season at this stage."

Has John Simpson Secured the Starting Left Guard Job?

Among McGuinness' other takeaways from the Ravens-Commanders game Monday night was that John Simpson has emerged as the clear favorite to win the starting left guard spot.

"For the second straight week, the Ravens rotated John Simpson and Malaesala Aumavae-Laulu at left guard, with Simpson seeing quarters one and three and Aumavae-Laulu playing quarters two and four. The difference is striking," McGuinness wrote. "Through two games, Simpson has been solid enough, earning a 77.5 PFF run-blocking grade and an 84.1 PFF pass-blocking grade. He has allowed no pressure from 44 pass-blocking snaps.

"Meanwhile, the sixth-round pick out of Oregon looks every bit a late-round prospect. On the field for 64 snaps this preseason, he has earned sub-40.0 PFF grades in both pass blocking and run blocking, allowing four pressures from 40 pass-blocking snaps. He's a developmental prospect, and it will be interesting to see where he is a year from now."

The Baltimore Banner's Jonas Shaffer also took note of Simpson's strong performance against the Commanders.

A 2020 fourth-round pick, Simpson started 21 games for the Las Vegas Raiders over three seasons. The Ravens signed him to their practice squad last December after he was waived.

Sports Illustrated Writer Says Ravens' Preseason Win Streak Should Go Down As One of NFL's Greatest Records

The NFL world continues to debate the merits of the Ravens' historic 24-game preseason win streak, which ended with a dramatic one-point loss to the Washington Commanders Monday night, 29-28.

While some dismiss the streak as meaningless, Sports Illustrated’s Connor Orr said the achievement should go down as one of the NFL's greatest records. Orr contended that the unappreciated feat provided a lesson that goes beyond sports.

"What if we treated more conversations we have with our friends, children and loved ones the way the Ravens treated the preseason?" Orr wrote. "More meals we made? How would it enrich our lives and deepen our connections? How would it dislodge the emptiness and bleakness of a trip to the grocery store, or a waiting room at Jiffy Lube?

"I'm not saying that every moment has to yield some kind of profundity. The author, mental performance coach and all-around fount of wisdom Brad Stulberg notes that there is a separate kind of trap from that mindset. But there is undoubtedly power and value in taking something that most of us ignore — hell, that a lot of teams collectively wish would just disappear—and holding it to a higher standard."

Orr said the Ravens' win streak "ended up creating an undeniably great football moment" on Monday night.

"The preseason streak was one of the great records in sports because it began as an anti-record, a purposeful celebration of obscurity that became anything but," Orr wrote. "It became big only after many little things were appreciated beyond expectation."

Revamped Ravens Offense Will Be 'Huge Enigma for Defenses' in Red Zone

Count NFL Network analytics expert Cynthia Frelund among the pundits who are excited about the new-look Ravens offense and the impact Odell Beckham Jr. and Zay Flowers will make.

During an appearance on 105.7 The Fan’s “Inside Access,” Freund said the Ravens will be a "huge enigma for defenses" in the red zone.

"I think Zay Flowers in space is a beautiful thing," Frelund said. "When you look at the passes he was forced to catch last season — and I say that because he didn't have someone with the precision and tools that Lamar Jackson possesses — that was the type of thing where he had to make a lot of adjustments, which means he 's probably able to see defenses and read them a little bit more keenly than some of the guys coming out, which should project well for him, especially in space.

"By the way, it never hurts for Odell Beckham Jr. to also be on the field with you, and Mark Andrews. Such that the defense is like, 'Hey, which one of these guys do I need to stop?'"

As for the expectations she has for Beckham, Frelund said: "I feel like the combination of [Offensive Coordinator] Todd Monken and Odell Beckham Jr. with Lamar Jackson is going to be fun for all of us to watch except for opposing defenses. My expectations for him are being the type of difference-maker that the Rams had before he got hurt."

How Ravens Can Get the Best Out of Jadeveon Clowney

Jonas Shaffer broke down film on Clowney and assessed what the three-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker can bring to the Ravens defense.

Speaking to Clowney's versatility, Shaffer noted that he could be moved inside on obvious passing downs.

"It might actually be his best role," Shaffer wrote. "Two years ago, his pressure rate as an interior pass rusher (19.4%) for Cleveland was more than double his pressure rate as an edge defender and outside linebacker (8.7%). He didn't have a sack in those 31 snaps, but he recorded hurries faster, on average (2.55 seconds), than he did from the outside (3.2 seconds), according to NGS.

"Against shorter-armed interior linemen, Clowney does not have to worry about turning the corner. He just has to win with his first move. After that, physics tends to take over. A 6-foot-5, 266-pound 'power rusher,' as [Head Coach John] Harbaugh called him, Clowney can be hard to uproot."

Clowney also can be an important piece of the Ravens' run defense.

"The Ravens will need his edge-setting ability," Shaffer wrote. "Clowney, with his impressive wingspan and power, can hold off tackles and control guards at the point of attackBlocking him with a tight end is almost always a bad idea."

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