AFC North Built For Trench Warfare On Offense

Over the past five drafts or so, the Pittsburgh Steelers actively began replenishing their depleted offensive line by investing high draft picks at the position, including first round picks on center Maurkice Pouncey and right guard David DeCastro.

Completing the starting lineup are left guard Ramon Foster, a former undrafted free agent who made a few starts as a rookie in 2009, Marcus Gilbert, a second-round draft pick from 2011, and Kelvin Beachum, an afterthought and compensatory seventh-round draft pick from 2012.

Of course, the Steelers believed that it would be their second-round pick from that year, tackle Mike Adams, who would be manning the blind side by now, but after three seasons, one wonders how much longer this experiment will last. Adams filled in a few games at right tackle and didn’t show much improvement.

Despite that draft whiff, Beachum has certainly been a nice compensatory option, continually improving as a pass protector, even if he can stand to get more push from time to time as a run blockers, especially as the Steelers continue to become a more ambidextrous ground attack.

No doubt the Steelers were hoping to gain an edge on their division rivals in the trenches with a strong offensive line, which would come particularly in hand in those late-season games when the weather turns sour and it’s more difficult to throw the ball with accuracy.

But the rest of the division has rebuilt their offensive lines along with them, and, in fact, at peak health, the Steelers may even have the worst of the four teams in the AFC North. And that’s considering that all four teams rank in the top 10 in the league in terms of offensive line performance, according to sites such as Pro Football Focus.

While the Steelers may have gotten to Ravens center Jeremy Zuttah a couple times in the Wildcard loss, Baltimore does have a very good line, and one of the best linemen in football in Marshal Yanda. Eugene Monroe is a very stable left tackle, and the Ravens have found quality pieces to fill in around them. They’ve been able to turn Justin Forsett into a household name.

The Browns, meanwhile, were able to find great success on the ground with three rookie running backs in large part because of their strong offensive line, spearheaded of course by left tackle Joe Thomas. Center Alex Mack’s loss in the middle of the season was a big one, but the Browns have other quality pieces in place as well, including rookie guard Joel Bitonio.

Finally, there are the Bengals, who boast arguably the most underrated lineman in the league in Andrew Whitworth. The line struggled some when Andre Smith went down at left tackle, but Eric Winston’s signing late in the year helped settle things. Kevin Zeitler, drafted three spots after DeCastro, also continues to play well.

Looking around the division, it seems the entire AFC North is in good shape in the trenches, at least on the offensive side of the ball, compared to the rest of the league.

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