Steelers have Heisman hurdles to clear in Baltimore, Cleveland and Cincinnati

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PITTSBURGH — In the seemingly never-ending post-NFL draft analysis, it has been difficult to find an armchair general manager who didn’t think the Baltimore Ravens won the draft. And truth be told, they had quite the haul.

The Ravens selected two inside linebackers in Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison in the first and third rounds who could end up being starters on their defense, and they selected running back J.K. Dobbins in the second round and receiver Devin Duvernay with a third-round choice, two more players that could have a profound impact on an already-prolific offense that returns league MVP Lamar Jackson at quarterback.

The Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals also received high praise for their selections. The Bengals made Joe Burrow of LSU the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, giving the AFC North three Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks to compete against the Steelers for supremacy in the division.

The Steelers, of course, are well aware of the influx of talent. One of the themes of the virtual offseason for the Steelers is how they’re going to defend against such a talented assemblage of players.

“The AFC North has a lot of good players,” Steelers linebacker Devin Bush said. “There are like five or six Heisman winners in the division. You’re playing teams twice a year. That’s going to be some good games.”

Bush wasn’t being hyperbolic. The AFC North does have five Heisman winners in the division. In addition to Burrow, there is Jackson (2016), Baker Mayfield (2017), Robert Griffin III (2011) and Mark Ingram (2009).

Heisman winners don’t always see their talents translate to the NFL, but it’s worth noting how rare it is that so many are in the same division. Since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, three Heisman winning quarterbacks have competed in the same division on only one other occasion — and that occasion was unremarkable, to say the least.

In 1993, Ty Detmer, Andre Ware and Gino Toretta competed in the old NFC Central division with the Packers, Lions and Vikings. Together, they combined to start two games that season — both by Ware.

Suffice it to say, the Steelers face a much stiffer test competing against the likes of Jackson, Mayfield and Burrow. And it’s not just about the quarterbacks in the AFC North. The Ravens, Browns and Bengals have talented playmakers around their signal callers.

The Browns have receivers Odell Beckham, Jr. and Jarvis Landry as their top two receivers and Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt as their top two running backs. Burrow has one-time All-Pro receiver A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd as his top two receivers, along with running back Joe Mixon. And the Ravens, while not as star-studded, have tight end Mark Andrews and second-year receiver Marquise Brown to go along with Jackson and Ingram and newbies Dobbins and Duvernay.

The infusion of talented quarterbacks and playmakers in the division in recent years is one reason the Steelers used their third-round pick last month on Charlotte edge rusher Alex Highsmith. For the Steelers, pressuring quarterbacks has been and will continue to be an important part of defending.

“We now have three Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks in the AFC North,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “We’ve got to employ people to hunt those guys. Hopefully (Highsmith) will aid us in that regard.”

The only other time the AFC North had as many as two Heisman winners in the division at the same time was more than a decade ago, and the Steelers didn’t let that get in their way of winning a Super Bowl. From 2007-09, Carson Palmer and Troy Smith played for the Bengals and Ravens. Palmer certainly was a formidable foe for the Steelers for years, but Smith only started twice in his three-year tenure with the Ravens. And, of course, the Steelers made the playoffs twice in those three years and won their sixth Lombardi Trophy after the 2008 season.

Most Heisman winners these days are quarterbacks, but there was a time running backs dominated the award.

And coincidentally the Steelers once played in the same division with three Heisman Trophy winning running backs. Archie Griffin, Earl Campbell and Charles White played for the Bengals, Oilers and Browns, respectively, in the old AFC Central from 1980-82. White and Griffin had modest NFL careers while Campbell had a short but brilliant pro career that landed him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Now it’s Jackson, Mayfield and Burrow in the AFC North. How the Steelers defend against this trio of Heisman winners likely will determine if a division title and a return to the playoffs are in their future next season.


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