When you think about the AFC North, the first thing that comes to mind has to be defense. AFC North and defense are like Terry Bradshaw and Howie Long they just fit together and are fun to watch. From the Steel Curtain of the 1970sTeam all the way to current Ball So Hard University moniker of the Baltimore Ravens, the defense in the AFC north has been nothing but hard hits and great plays. In this week’s edition of the AFC North Breakdown, we will be breaking down the current defenses of all four teams and ranking them in our projected order of strongest to weakest. If you disagree with this, let us know on facebook or twitter or by logging into Steelers101 and leaving us a comment.Baltimore Ravens - Coming in at number one is the Ravens. Even with five time Pro-Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs possibly being out this season due to a torn Achilles tendon, the Ravens have the most complete defense in the AFC North. Sure, they will miss Suggs and his 14 sacks, 7 forced fumbles, and 70 tackles from last season, but they drafted some insurance this offseason by the name of Courtney Upshaw. Upshaw can play both defensive end and outside linebacker will more than likely see action in both areas with the loss of Suggs, but in no way will he surpass those numbers as a rookie.
Luckily, for the Ravens, while Suggs was the team leader in sacks by leaps and bounds he was not their only defensive weapon. Team captain and sure-fire hall of famer Ray Lewis was their emotional and physical leader with 95 tackles at the age of 36.
With a slew of weapons on hand for the Ravens, Lewis has plenty of back up besides rookie Upshaw. The Ravens secondary is led by veteran safety Ed Reed (52 tackles, 3 interceptions, and 1 sack.) and cornerback Lardarius Webb (67 tackles, 5 interceptions, and 1 sack). Both players have been an issue for AFC North quarterbacks and the rest of the NFL for some time. Couple that with safety Bernard Pollard (75 tackles, 2 sacks, and 1 interception) and cornerback Jimmy Smith (20 tackles and 2 interceptions) and they have built one of the best secondary’s in the league.
The biggest strength of this defense is the way this crew can create turnovers and get to the quarterback. Yes, they are not as young as they once were, but they boast a good mix of both youth and veterans centered around their three potential hall of famers..
2) Pittsburgh Steelers - Coming in as the second ranked defense in the division was actually the first ranked defense in the NFL in 2011. While they are still productive, they may have more all-around age than the Ravens at multiple positions. To change that, the Steelers have been slowly making some changes this offseason, with three opening day starters no longer on the roster (James Farrior, William Gay, and Aaron Smith). Leading to the Steelers somewhat entering a rebuilding mode on defense, pushing this idea of a younger fresher team. While this type of overhaul is working for them on offense, it may take more time to complete this transformation on the defense.
Even with this process in the beginning stages, most of their starters have what it takes to hang with the younger players. Players like league office favorite James Harrison (59 tackles, and 9 sacks last season), LaMarr Woodley (39 tackles, 9 sacks and 1 interception last season), and Lawrence Timmons (93 tackles, 2 sacks, and 1 interception last season) lead one of the top linebacker units in the NFL and provide the core that the Steelers always seem to have.
Their secondary still has their primary leaders in the likes of safety Ryan Clark (100 tackles, 1 sack, and 1 interception last season), safety Troy Polamalu (91 tackles, 1 sack, and 2 interceptions last season), and cornerback Ike Taylor (44 tackles and 2 interceptions last season). However, the loss of Gay may be cause for some concern, with the team lacking an experienced slot cornerback for their defensive schemes.
Yes, their leaders are not as young as they once were, but they can serve as perfect mentors for the younger defensive players the team will count on in 2012.
3) Cincinnati Bengals - The Bengals finished 2011 with the 7th ranked unit in the NFL, but amazingly were 3rd in the AFC North. Unfortunately, for them, they look like that is exactly where they will be again in 2012. Ironically, it was Head Coach Marvin Lewis at the helm of the Ravens defense that carried them to a Super Bowl Championship as their defensive coordinator, leaving Bengals fans to wonder when he will have the same luck here.
The everyday football fan would look at the Bengals defense with a curious eye because there is only one household name on it, Adam “Pacman” Jones. What they do have is a solid mix of veterans and youth that compliment their offense perfectly.
Players like linebacker Thomas Howard (99 tackles and 2 forced fumbles), linebacker Rey Maualuga (88 tackles, 3 forced fumbles and 1 interception), safety Reggie Nelson (85 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, and 4 interceptions), and defensive tackle Geno Atkins (47 tackles, 2 forced fumbles and 7.5 sacks) all contributed mightily in 2011. This core group helped mold their rather nameless defense into one of the more impressive in the NFL.
The main issue last season was the secondary, and their lack of production, but Bengals front office answered that in the NFL draft. The helped solidify the cornerback issues by drafting Alabama cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick in the first round. This one time projected top ten talent may lack pure speed but he makes up for it with his size and instinctive play. Baring injury, Kirkpatrick should be a starter week one and help calm their secondary woes. The team did not stop there, adding more secondary depth throughout the seven rounds in one of the more impressive draft hauls in this class.
4) Cleveland Browns - Incredibly, while the Browns are at the bottom of the AFC North, they were actually a top ten NFL defense in 2011. Like the Bengals, the Browns lack name recognition on defense with cornerback Joe Haden being the only player that readily comes to mind when discussing the unit. Even with Haden, his numbers came down after his solid rookie season as he was not targeted as much in 2011 finishing the year with 65 tackles and one sack but no interceptions.
Next to Haden the Browns are held together by veteran linebacker D’Qwell Jackson (158 tackles and one interception) and 2011 rookie defensive end Jabaal Sheard (8.5 sacks). The Browns were strong against the pass lest season, but fell apart against the run allowing an average 147.4 yard per game on the ground (30th), a trend that will not be successful against AFC North opponents.
To try to solidify this unit, the team attacked the defensive line in the draft by picking up a ton of potential run stuffers. Yes, they may not of been huge names, but these defenders are solid. Players like defensive tackle John Hughes (raw talent with upside), and defensive end Billy Winn (a pure run stopper) add depth up front. While linebackers James-Michael Johnson (an in-the box linebacker run stuffer) and Emmanuel Acho (small, but athletic) will add some youth and pop to their linebacking corps.
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