Ranking Every Defense in the AFC North
The AFC North has become a three-team race and it looks like it will likely stay that way for years to come. One of the key reasons for that is that there are three very good offenses in the division.
There are also three excellent defenses in the four-team division.
The AFC North may not have a repeat winner for many years. Defense will be a huge part of how things play out. Let's take a look at how the defenses rank at this point.
All statistics in this article are taken from NFL.com
Pittsburgh & Baltimore (tie), Cincinnati, Cleveland
The Steelers and Ravens are about in a dead heat here. Statistically, the Ravens had a slightly better 2011 than the Steelers, but I won't use statistics to justify every argument here. That doesn't ever tell the complete story.
I'm also looking forward to 2012, so 2011 numbers only serve as a basis.
Both teams allowed less than 100 yards per game on average to opposing runners (Baltimore allowed 92.6 and Pittsburgh allowed 99.8). They ranked first and fourth in this category in the AFC. Looking ahead, that figures to remain roughly the same.
The Steelers should be featuring some younger and faster run-stuffers, however, so they could climb back to the top of the league in this category. Baltimore still has Haloti Ngata, but will be without Terrell Suggs. They won't suffer much against the run, however.
Cincinnati finished 6th in the league in yards allowed per game with just over 100. That's not bad and they've got some great young defensive pieces that will only get better.
Cleveland finished dead last in the AFC with nearly 150 yards allowed per game. They continue to struggle at stopping the run. In a division with backs like Ray Rice, Isaac Redman and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, that could really be a problem.
Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati
The rankings here are odd if you are simply considering 2011 statistics. The problem is that I don't see the Steelers being able to repeat as the top pass defense in the conference again. They lost William Gay, who unbelievably solidified the team's cornerback spot in 2011.
Troy Polamalu also is a liability in coverage many times because he abandons his assignment to play a monster role and attack the quarterback. Ryan Clark and Ike Taylor are excellent against the pass, but that leaves a whole side of their defense in question. Keenan Lewis will be a big part of the solution if he steps up once again.
The Ravens were third in the division last year, but with Jimmy Smith now in his second season and the overall corps of corners gaining valuable experience last season, they should be much better. If Ed Reed can return to health and form, they'll have the best secondary in the division man for man.
Cleveland finished second in the division, but I don't see that being sustainable as they have to continually face Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton. All three division teams now have dynamic receiving groups as well.
Cincinnati finished last and I think they still have plenty of work to do. A healthy season might put them ahead of the Browns though. That gap between third and fourth is very slim.
Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Cleveland
I can't argue against the Steelers. This isn't about being from Pittsburgh. If they get a healthy season from their outside guys, there's no better combination of pass rushers than James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons.
A return to the starting lineup from Larry Foote can even help. Foote is adept at getting into the pocket.
The Ravens were the top sacking team in the AFC last year, but they'll be without Terrell Suggs and with Ray Lewis another year older. I won't say Lewis is going to show his age, though. The guy is a dynamo. He just keeps going. I think they'll fall back a little, however, as a group.
The Ravens were the second place team in sacks, but I feel like their defense is going to take another step forward next season. They had some injury issues last year and overcame those well. Anytime you do that, a healthy season from others will really put you in good position.
The Browns pass rush isn't awful, but it isn't anything special either. With the offensive lines in the division getting stronger, the Browns will have a hard time generating decent numbers.
Baltimore, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Cleveland
Last season, the Ravens were the division's best in interceptions. The Steelers were right behind them and the Bengals and Browns were bunched close by as well.
I think the Ravens will continue to be a good interception team because of the growth in the secondary. The names may not be household ones, but they get the job done pretty well.
The Bengals have a nice group of corners that are steadily improving and I think that will begin to show up in a division that features a rookie quarterback and two gunslingers who can make mistakes at times.
The Browns weren't a big turnover team in 2011 and that doesn't look to change, although Joe Haden should continue his development and up their numbers a little bit. There's room for these rankings to fluctuate if the stats are any indication. The teams finished so close together last year.
Fumbles are something the Steelers and Ravens specialize in. It will be hard to gauge that right now, but I would give the edge to Pittsburgh with James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. The Ravens are right behind with Ray Lewis. The Bengals are coming on strong too and the Browns have a young and talented front seven. Ball protection is going to be huge in 2012 for these teams.
Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cleveland, Cincinnati
There are two really good measures for points. The first is the total number of points a team allows during the season. The second is the average points allowed per game. Obviously, you want both numbers as low as possible, but a good offense can earn wins even in a shootout where the defense is off.
The Steelers and Ravens both have good offenses, but they both routinely rely on their defenses to seal the victories they earn.
Last season, the Steelers and Ravens allowed the fewest points in the conference and were also first and second in points per game. They also finished with identical records of 12-4. The Browns defense allowed fewer points than the Bengals, but their offense couldn't win them as many victories.
I think these rankings will remain virtually unchanged. The Bengals have always had a penchant for allowing points and their offense can cover for that. The Steelers and Ravens don't like to get into shootouts, so they'll push their defenses to continually shut down opposing offense. The Browns are in the middle, but their offensive problems will overshadow a defense that doesn't break so much as bend a lot.
An interesting statistic here as well is the number of touchdowns allowed. The Ravens were best in the conference with the Steelers right behind. The Browns were significantly ahead of the Bengals but just behind the other two teams. That's how, even with the Bengals improving, they still remain last for the moment.
So let's put the whole picture together. How do the full defenses stack up against each other?
First, I think that all four defenses have a lot of talent. Cleveland gets overshadowed because of the division's heavyweights (Pittsburgh and Baltimore), but the Browns defense is the only thing that keeps them in several games each season. If they had some semblance of an offense, they could actually contend with the other three teams.
The Bengals are the most interesting unit in the division because they have come so far but still have so much growing to do. They could really have a big season and coordinator Mike Zimmer is a hot head coaching candidate and should be the next AFC North assistant to land a head coaching gig.
Overall, the defenses still come down to Pittsburgh or Baltimore for the top spot. These teams and units duke it out in the rankings and on the field every season.
If the Steelers can get through the season healthy, they should be the top defense in the NFL. A lot will depend on how they perform up the middle at nose tackle and inside linebacker.
The Ravens should, as long as Ray Lewis continues to hog the fountain of youth and Paul Kruger makes everyone forget about Terrell Suggs, be no less than 1a in the NFL. They are that good and that secondary is top five in the conference.
The Bengals will push for second, but I don't think they're there yet unless they can decrease the touchdowns allowed. The Browns will push them and if Joe Haden develops more and their front seven continues to grow, might just be the third best unit here. It's telling that the Browns finished in the top ten in several defensive categories last year.
Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland