AFC North Breakdown by Position: Defense and Special Teams

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During the month of August, the Last Word On Sports NFL department will be breaking down every division in the league by position. This article contains a position-by-position breakdown of the AFC North defenses. The breakdown will contain “the best” at each unit followed by “the rest” in descending order.

AFC North Breakdown by Position: Defense and Special Teams

Defensive Line

The Best: Cincinnati Bengals

The Rest: Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns

Geno Atkins, in his second season removed from an ACL tear really put himself back up on the list of elite defensive lineman in the NFL. Aside from J.J. Watt and Aaron Donald, the argument could be made that Atkins in the next best defensive lineman in the league. In Atkins’ two most healthy seasons he has combined for 23.5 sacks and is a menace against the run. He impacts the entire line, and it is no surprise that Carlos Dunlap took a major leap forward last year with the presence that Atkins brings. Dunlap had a 5.5 sack increase up to 13.5 last season, and at age 26 with these two meshing, he could only be on the rise. The Bengals bring depth with Michael Johnson, Domata Peko, Margus Hunt, Brandon Thompson, Pat Sims, and more proving to be one of the best defensive lines in the league.

The Steelers defensive line has turned into a team strength. They are shifting to a more hybrid defense and will be rotating two defensive lineman and two pass rushing linebackers that can potentially drop into coverage. With Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward rotating as the primary lineman this line has yet to hit its ceiling. The two combined for 13.5 sacks last season with Tuitt missing two games and being in his second season. Heyward is only 26 and Tuitt is 22. They signed Ricardo Mathews and drafted Javon Hargrave and both look to have impacts as spell rushers giving the line depth, talent, and most certainly upside.

The Ravens are looking to run a more multiple scheme as well, but in their base 3-4, Brandon Williams could be regarded as the best nose tackle in the NFL. Their ends consist of Timmy Jernigan and Lawrence Guy and while their jobs are to open up space for the pass rushers, they only amounted to seven combined sacks. They are both still young and Jernigan has a lot of upside, but compared to the Steelers and Bengals, two lines that should be considered in the top ten, the Ravens are a small step behind.

The Browns have hands down the worst defensive line. With Armonty Bryant  suspended and Desmond Bryant injured for the year they will be relying on two rookies, Emmanuel Ogbah and Carl Nassib, to make a big impact next to second-year nose tackle Danny Shelton. At the end of the day, there is upside and if the three can gel together there is a lot to like moving forward. However, even Shelton left you wanting more after his rookie season so it is tough to expect the world from them. Xavier Cooper and John Hughes will rotate in for the ends, but Browns fans will want to see the young draftees making an impact.

Linebacker

The Best: Baltimore Ravens

The Rest: Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns

In this position, you can pick and chose ways to make a case for the Steelers or even the Bengals here, but in terms of depth, the Ravens should have the best unit on paper. Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil are the big names as the Ravens outside linebackers. While Suggs is coming off a devastating Achilles injury, and Dumervil has some nagging issues himself, the Ravens have depth behind them.

Za’Darius Smith showed impressively at times as a rookie for the Ravens last season and Matt Judon and Victor Ochi are two emerging names making noise as rookies in camp. On the inside, C.J. Mosley is already an All-Pro candidate and could be in that discussion for a while to come. Kameli Correa is another rookie who may see a lot of snaps for the Ravens and looks like a player who can stuff the run, so overall it looks like a good blend of talent, youth, and position fit.

The Steelers should be getting a bit of a step forward from their linebacker core. Ryan Shazier is a player who has flashes of being the top 15 pick that he was. However, he has yet to get through a full season healthy and has only started in 17 of the Steelers 32 regular season games. Lawrence Timmons is old reliable in the middle but has lost a bit of a step. Moving forward he is almost limited to defending the run and blitzing, and may be taken off of the field in more situations than he ever has.

At outside linebacker, James Harrison is still this team’s top pass rushing threat. It is almost time to call off any chances of Jarvis Jones living up to his potential, but second-year players Bud Dupree and Anthony Chickillo are on pace to emerge. With Arthur Moats in the mix, this team has depth and if Dupree, Shazier, and Chickillo can show they are ready to take a step forward, this core will have an optimistic outlook this season.

The Bengals run a base 4-3, unlike any other team in the division. Therefore linebacker does not have to be as much of a position strength. That said, for what they need out of the position they are just fine. Of course, there is Vontaze Burfict who is a player that can strike fear into the opposition. He is the clear top player of the core but will miss four games with a suspension this season. Behind him is Rey Maualuga who is 29 and has had some injury issues in the past few years, and 34-year old Karlos Dansby who is coming off of a two-year vacation called playing for the Browns. Vincent Rey and rookie Nick Vigil should give the position depth, and at the end of the day, it is not a bad unit. It just is not necessarily the team’s strength.

The Browns are looking to find something from their linebacking core this year. Nate Orchard seems to have the most upside but last year as a rookie only posted three sacks. Paul Kruger does not appear to be worth what he is getting and Barkevious Mingo can officially be considered a bust. In the middle is an open competition with a plethora of names in the mix. The hope in this position is similar to wide receiver and quarterback in that they are just hoping that competition can make something emerge.

Cornerback

The Best: Cincinnati Bengals 

 The Rest: Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers 

Even with the potential of first-round pick William Jackson III being sidelined, the Bengals should have the best group in the division. Last year the Bengals ranked tenth in passing defense DVOA and Adam Jones had a lot to do with it. He helped in the slot and on the outside and was a very productive cornerback. The Bengals got a bit of a step forward from Dre Kirkpatrick, and he started to get the hang of the outside last year. The Bengals are going to need another step from him this year though as he is in a contract year. Darqueze Dennard enters his third year and should enter as the full-time slot cornerback. Overall, it is a group with three first round picks, and potentially four if Jackson can recover from his pectoral injury. However, Jones is only one to prove worthy of his draft status to date.

The Browns getting Joe Haden back would be a huge step forward for them. Haden had a really rough season and spent most of it on the sideline with a concussion in 2015. With Haden out, it put a lot of pressure on Tramon Williams and he did not respond. This season. the addition of Haden should put Williams against the second receivers and should really bring out a better side of him. Jamar Taylor appears to be emerging in the slot above K’Waun Williams, and while Justin Gilbert looks like just another Browns bust, at least he does not appear to be needed this year.

When comparing the Steelers and Ravens secondaries it is really Jimmy Smith, William Gay and a bunch of question marks. Smith has shown flashes of being a strong cornerback at times, but needs to be more consistent. In terms of depth, they are looking at Shareece Wright and Kyle Arrington. Wright has struggled, and Arrington may take over on the outside to give way to Tavon Young in the slot. Young has the looks of a solid slot player but obviously, only time will tell.

For the Steelers, Gay has a wild habit of taking every ball he intercepts back for a touchdown. However, behind him is Ross Cockrell who showed well at times, but only has seven starts under his belt. Then there is rookie Sean Davis. Unlike Young on the Ravens, Davis was actually drafted to play strong safety. An injury to Senquez Golson pushed him into the slot cornerback spot. When you are drafting a college corner with the intent to move him away from his natural position, only to be forced to start him there anyway, it does not sound like it is going to be the smoothest experiment.

Safety

The Best: Cincinnati Bengals 

The Rest: Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns

The Bengals get the nod despite losing Reggie Nelson to free agency this off-season. This is going to turn into a small George Iloka love-fest. Why doesn’t this guy get recognized more? He is 6’4″ with speed and the ability to tackle, hi,t and defend both the pass and the run. He is as sure of a tackler that you can find and to see him fly all over the field and make plays is just fun to watch. The Bengals were quick to tie up Iloka this off-season and extremely hesitant to re-sign Reggie Nelson and that should tell you most of what you need to know about where they stand on those two. Nelson is the name but Iloka is the player in that secondary.

Of all three of the teams, the Ravens are the only one with two actual proven starters. Sure, it comes in Lardarius Webb, a former cornerback, and Eric Weddle, a player on the downslope of his career, but at least both starters are known to be successful. Terrence Brooks, Matt Elam, and Kendrick Lewis bring depth as well, but none really look like they can be actual contributors. There is a thought process that Webb, being a former cornerback should slot into a free safety role, but Weddle has been a free safety for his entire career. It can be schemed around, but to say that the two veterans can adjust and gel so quickly with surrounding questions to other parts of their game makes it a very volatile position.

The Steelers, do have one safety slot locked in and that is Mike Mitchell. However, when looking at the depth on the roster the Steelers probably wouldn’t mind one of those potential busts the Ravens have. The Steelers are looking to special teams captain Robert Golden to start opposite of Mitchell and have two combined starts out of any other safety on the roster. If Mitchell were to go down there would be no debate as to who had the worst group of safeties in the league.

Until Mitchell goes down, the Browns may be in that debate for teams with the worst safety play in the league. The Browns are treating this similar to middle linebacker in which they are throwing guys out there and looking for winners in the name of competition. Jordan Poyer and Ibraheim Campbell have the inside shots here but anyone from Derrick Kindred, Rahim Moore, and Pierre Desir could emerge as players.

Special Teams

The Best: Baltimore Ravens 

The Rest: Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers,Cleveland Browns

Given that John Harbaugh is a former special teams coach, the Ravens had better be the best special teams unit. The Ravens ranked as the top squad in special teams DVOA last season and finished in second the year before. With Harbaugh and kicker Justin Tucker they deserve the top slot.

The Bengals ranked eighth in special teams DVOA and ranked six the year before. The Steelers ranked 18th in DVOA last year, but some of that could be attributed to kicker mishaps in the beginning of the season. The team has since signed Chris Boswell, who has been fantastic, and they should be on the rise this year. The Browns finished 15th in DVOA last year, but 24th in weighted DVOA. With the Steelers improving and the Bengals and Ravens bringing a traditionally strong unit,the Browns again fall to the back.

Coaching

The Best: Pittsburgh Steelers 

The Rest: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns

This one can bring all sorts of debate, but at the end of the day, Mike Tomlin and his staff are the best. Winning is what matters and since Tomlin has taken over, the Steelers they have done nothing but that. John Harbaugh has one less season than Tomlin, but his Ravens would have to go 15-1 to have the same regular season record. While the Ravens have won more playoff games in the past eight years, both coaches have won one Super Bowl and the Steelers have one more AFC Championship. The Steelers are 9-10 against the Ravens since 2008, but they are also 2-1 against them in the playoffs. In terms of challenges, Tomlin wins 50% of his while Harbaugh wins 43% of his. Tomlin gets the argument against him that he did not draft Ben Roethlisberger, but Harbaugh gets the argument of coaching under Ozzie Newsome.

Many are going to make the case for Marvin Lewis and are going to state that he does more with less and that the Bengals ownership is holding him back. That, however, is his fault as he chose the job. Lewis has coached four more years than Tomlin. For Tomlin to get to the regular season record that Lewis has, Tomlin would have to go 20-42 in that span. Tomlin, a coach who has never had a losing record, has a better chance to win 20 games in his next year and a half than average five per year over the next four. Lewis has won 46% of his challenges which is behind Tomlin, and of course, the huge zero that sits in the win column in his playoff career.

Lewis has found success recently against the Ravens but has never cracked the Steelers code. The Steelers have won their last three trips to Paul Brown Stadium and Lewis is 3-10 against Tomlin since drafting Andy Dalton. The last loss, of course, came in a game where sideline reporters noticed Vontaze Burfict fighting off assistant coaches but that raised no red flag to Lewis. The game spiraled out of control from there, and the lack of poise and understanding from Lewis was revealed in his biggest moment. It is tough to make a case for him compared to Harbaugh, who also has a Super Bowl ring, let alone a coach such as Tomlin.

What a shock, the Browns come in with a new coach. Hue Jackson has the reputation of a really successful head coach in the NFL. The question in Cleveland will be how much the ownership can be patient because this thing is not turning around in one or two years.

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