The AFC North has proven once again through the first third of the season that it is one of the toughest divisions in the NFL. The top three defenses all belong to the AFC North, the Bengals at No. 1, the Steelers at No. 2 and the Ravens at No. 3. Even though the division is still a tough one, the AFC North's usual leader just doesn't look like they used to.
In first place are the Baltimore Ravens who have a nice combination of a typical Ravens defense and an offense that has been able to move the ball down the field easier than they have in the past. A lot of this has to do with Joe Flacco's progression and a lot has to do with some added weapons at the wide receiver positions. Torrey Smith and Lee Evens have helped take pressure off Anquan Boldin. Ray Rice has looked like his usual self. It's finally looking like the year that the Ravens unseat the Steelers as the dominant team in the division.
In second place, surprisingly, are the Cincinnati Bengals. Despite losing their franchise quarterback and their all-time leading receiver in the offseason, the Bengals' young offense, led by rookie Andy Dalton, has made plays when they had to and their defense is the best in the NFL. While making the playoffs is still a longshot for the Bengals, they're still in the conversation.
In third place are the Pittsburgh Steelers who just don't look like they used to look. Their defense has looked old and slow at times and their offensive line hasn't allowed them to run the ball and it's gotten Ben Roethlisberger banged up. They have a winning record and they will probably be in the hunt for the playoffs at the end of the season but I doubt they'll be winning the division. At best they can ask for a wild card spot. But you really can't ever count out the Steelers, can you?
And in last place in the division are the Cleveland Browns, who are in a rebuilding phase. Colt McCoy has looked good at times but they haven't been able to run the ball this season and a strong running game is what the Browns will need to have any success in 2011. Even though they can't necessarily be mathematically be eliminated from the playoffs, their chances of playing in the post season aren't good.
With the trade deadline looming, here are moves each team could make to make improve their teams.
Team Needs: cornerback
Thanks to some injuries to the Ravens cornerbacks, including rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith's high-ankle sprain, teams have been able to take advantage of a banged up secondary. Sure Ed Reed is back there but he can't be everywhere at once and the Ravens may want to look at a trade to help shore up the secondary instead of waiting for their starting cornerbacks, Chris Carr and Jimmy Smith, to get back.
Trade Possibility: Rashean Mathis
Peter King has reported that Jacksonville Jaguars Rashean Mathis may be available to a team willing to give up a mid-round pick or maybe higher. The Jaguars won't be making a playoff push any time soon and Mathis is in a contract year and they may look to get something for him before they let him walk away in the offseason.
The Ravens don't play a solid down-field passing team outside their division until they play the San Diego Chargers on the road in Week 15 and they may not need Mathis that badly but he could help solidify their secondary and at least ad depth when the Ravens' starters are healthy again.
Team Needs: running back, wide receiver
The Bengals surprisingly don't really need a lot -- they're loaded with talent at the majority of their positions. They could use some help on their offensive line but they won't be making a trade for one any time soon. Depending on what happens to running back Cedric Benson, who is facing a possible suspension, and on what happens to No. 2 receiver Jerome Simpson, who is under investigation after a drug bust, the Bengals could try to add some talent at their offensive skill positions.
Even if Simpson isn't suspended (or worse) the Bengals No. 2 receiver hasn't looked amazing this season. Outside of one 100-yard game against the Broncos, Simpson hasn't looked to hot and he has yet to find his way into the end zone. Both he and Andre Caldwell are in contract years and the Bengals could look to Lloyd, who is on the trading block, to keep some attention of their No. 1 receiver, A.J. Green before he gets doubled on every play.
When it comes to the running game, the Bengals haven't been able to do much on the ground. Cedric Benson has had a couple good games but he hasn't been the top-tier back he was in 2009 and that's the kind of running back the Bengals need. Dallas' Choice may be available and could help the Bengals run the ball, but it's unlikely to happen.
Of course the big news with the Bengals when it comes to the trade deadline is what will happen to veteran quarterback Carson Palmer. The answer seems to be nothing.
Team Needs: offensive lineman
The running game isn't working because the offensive line can't open holes or sustain blocks for Rashard Mendenhall and the passing game has been mediocre because the offensive line can't protect Ben Roethlisberger. If the Steelers want to go back to the Super Bowl, or even the playoffs, in 2011, they're going to have to solve that problem.
Trade Possibility: Jason Smith
Yahoo! Sports' Jason Cole mentioned St. Louis Rams tackle Jason Smith, the second-overall pick from the 2009, should be traded away due to the fact that he just hasn't been good. He was supposed to be a top-notch left tackle but he's become just a so-so right tackle.
Smith would come with a high price tag but if the Steelers could turn him into a productive offensive lineman, he could be worth it.
Team Needs: wide receiver, running back
The team recently promoted rookie wide receiver Greg Little from a backup role to a starting role but they could still use some help in the passing game to give Colt McCoy a more consistant target. Of course Brandon Lloyd is available but the Browns will likely solve their problems in the 2012 draft.
The bigger news in Cleveland is how the Browns are handling running back Peyton Hillis. There are rumors flying around that Hillis may request a trade due to the fact that he's not happy with his contract situation. If he leaves, the Browns would have Mantario Hardesty but they may want another running back. It's doubtful that the Browns would allow Hillis to skip town, though.