Defense has always been the strength of the AFC North. Nowhere was that more evident that with the 2000 edition of the Baltimore Ravens, who won Super Bowl XXXV by a 34-7 score over the New York Giants. That team featured a defense that allowed an average of 10.3 points per game and is considered among the greatest of all time.
Marvin Lewis, the architect of that stellar defense, is now the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals. Lewis has helped put together teams that finished in the top 10 in scoring defense five times since the 2010 season, a span of time that also included five straight playoff appearances for the Bengals.
Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin also comes from a defensive background. Tomlin was hired as the defensive backs coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2001, and his teams led the NFL in total defense in 2002 and 2005. In 2006, Tomlin became the defensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings and was hired as Pittsburgh’s head coach in 2007.
John Harbaugh coached special teams for the Philadelphia Eagles for nine years before becoming the defensive backs coach in 2007. In 2008, he was hired as head coach of the Baltimore Ravens.
Successful defenses begin and end with the defensive line. And, as you might expect, the AFC North has more than its share of outstanding talent up and down the defensive line. Answering the question of which unit is the best is where we now turn our attention.
1. Cincinnati Bengals
Cincinnati boasts a pair of perennial Pro Bowlers along its front four in Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap. In his seven-year career with the Bengals, Atkins has proven himself to be an elite defensive tackle. Atkins did not become a full-time starter for the Bengals until his second season in 2011, and he responded with 7.5 sacks to lead the team. He earned his first Pro Bowl nomination that season.
In 2012, Atkins set a franchise record with 12.5 sacks, was selected to his first Pro Bowl and was named All-Pro. Atkins played in only nine games in the 2013 season before tearing his ACL, but he returned to play a full season in 2014. Although he managed to record only three sacks, Atkins once again received a Pro Bowl invitation.
Atkins bounced back with 11 sacks in 2015, was selected to the Pro Bowl, was named First-team All Pro and was ranked 29th by his fellow players on the NFL Top 100 Players of 2016. Atkins finished the 2016 season with nine sacks and yet another Pro Bowl selection.
Carlos Dunlap, who lines up primarily at left defensive end, joined the Bengals in the same season as Atkins and finished 2010 as the team's sack leader with 9.5, despite playing in just 12 games. The 9.5 sacks were also the most by a rookie in team history.
Dunlap really came into his own 2015 when he recorded a career best 13.5 sacks and earned his first Pro Bowl selection. He was ranked 70th on the NFL Top 100 Players of 2016. In 2016, Dunlap finished with eight sacks, three forced fumbles, and 15 passes defensed on his way to his second Pro Bowl nomination. His 15 passes defensed was tied for eighth best in the league and were the most by any non-defensive back, by far.
But Dunlap has his sights set much higher. Ultimately, he is looking to break Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record of 22.5, which was set in 2001. While Dunlap is currently the official team leader in sacks with 57, he is still well shy of Eddie Edwards’ unofficial mark. Edwards, who played on the defensive line for the Bengals from 1977-1988, recorded somewhere between 83.5 and 87.5 sacks during his career. That number is subject to debate because sacks did not become an official stat for the NFL until after the 1982 season.
Nose tackle will probably be manned by Andrew Billings in 2017, a fourth-round selection of the Bengals in 2016 who missed his entire rookie season with a knee injury. Billings is not expected to be a big pass-rush threat, although he did have 5.5 sacks in his final collegiate season at Baylor, along with 14 tackles for loss. But he is a run-stopper extraordinaire. Billings finished his 2015 college season with 39 total tackles and was named All-American and the Co-Defensive Player of the Year in the Big 12. During his three seasons at Baylor, Billings recorded 107 total tackles, 30 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.
Michael Johnson came to the Bengals in the third round of the 2009 NFL Draft and has become a mainstay at right defensive end, though, his last few seasons have been far from dominant. His best season came in 2012 when he recorded 11.5 sacks, one fumble recovery and an interception. Johnson spent the 2014 season in Tampa Bay and has struggled since his return to the Bengals in 2015.
Carl Lawson and Jordan Willis are the new guys on the Bengals’ roster and Lawson especially has been turning heads ever since OTAs. Lawson had an injury-plagued career at Auburn. In his junior season, though, Lawson showed glimpses of his true potential when he finished with 9.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss. Nevertheless, Lawson slipped all the way to the fourth round, where the Bengals happily snatched him up. He has taken training camp by storm and looks to get more than his fair share of work both on the defensive line and in his new position as an outside linebacker. Willis is expected to stay at defensive end, where he had 113 tackles (39.5 for loss) and 25.5 sacks in four years at Kansas State. He figures to see significant playing time in his first season, especially considering Johnson’s recent struggles.
2. Cleveland Browns
New defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has switched the Browns from the ineffective 3-4 defense to a 4-3 look that will feature Desmond Bryant at right defensive tackle. Bryant, who spent his first four seasons in the league with the Oakland Raiders, is entering his fourth season with the Browns and posted a career-best six sacks last years.
Danny Shelton, in his third season after having been selected by Cleveland with the 12th pick of the 2015 NFL Draft, will start at left defensive tackle and Emmanuel Ogbah, who recorded 5.5 sacks last year as a rookie out of Oklahoma State, will man the left defensive end spot.
But the cream of this crop is expected to be right defensive end Myles Garrett, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2017 NFL Draft out of Texas A&M. Garrett recorded a total of 31.5 sacks in his three-year career with the Aggies and is considered a generational talent. He’s going to make life hard for all quarterbacks in the AFC North for years to come.
Potential is the key word for the Steelers, who boast a starting lineup including defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, along with second-year nose tackle Javon Hargrave. Heyward was Pittsburgh’s first-round selection in the 2011 NFL Draft and had not missed a game in his first five seasons with the team. But the injury bug hit hard in 2016 as Heyward played in only seven games.
Tuitt is a former second-rounder out of Notre Dame and has become a solid contributor for the Steelers, as has Hargrave, who was a third-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Pittsburgh also added Tyson Alualu, who spent the first seven years of his career with the Jacksonville Jaguars, in free agency to provide needed depth. L.T. Walton, who filled in for Heyward down the stretch last year, serves as the backup nose tackle.
4. Baltimore Ravens
Brandon Williams, entering his fifth season out of Missouri Southern State University, will anchor the middle of the Ravens’ defensive front three and Michael Pierce, an undrafted free agent from Samford, has locked down one of the defensive end spots. Together, they are expected to form one of the league’s top run-stopping duos.
The Ravens favor a heavy rotation on their defensive front, and will depend on Carl Davis, a third-round pick in 2015, and Willie Henry, last year’s fourth-round selection, to spell Williams.
The other defensive end spot is up for grabs between Brent Urban, Bronson Kaufusi and rookie Chris Wormley, a third-round selection out of Michigan. There’s potential for the Ravens’ defensive line to finish better than worst in the north, but as of now, they seem to be at the bottom of the division in ranking each team’s defensive line.
Which AFC North team has the best defensive line?
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