AFC North: Toughest Division in the NFL?

The top four defenses in the NFL? The numbers say they're all in the AFC North, where the Steelers and Ravens are no longer the only show-stoppers in town, writes Len Pasquarelli.

 Even with the ugly Baltimore performance on Monday night, a 12-7 loss at Jacksonville in which the Ravens netted a paltry 146 yards on offense and didn't collect their initial first down until nearly two-thirds of the way through the third quarter, this much is clear: The teams of the AFC North can play some defense.

   Don't look now, but the AFC North teams hold down the top four spots in the NFL's latest statistical ratings. Baltimore is No. 1 (272.7 yards per game), followed by Cincinnati (278.5), Pittsburgh (279.0), and Cleveland (291.0) in the rankings.

   No other division has more than two defenses in the top 10. Just two other divisions boast as many as three teams in the top half of the league in total defense.

   The collective defensive fierce foursome could take a hit next weekend, when the Steelers host New England, the league's top-rated offensive unit. The Pats have hung 30 or more points on the Steelers in four of the last seven meetings between the two franchises, including 39 points at Heinz Field last year, when the Pittsburgh defense seemingly had no answer for Tom Brady and the New England "spread" offense.

   Through the first seven weeks of the season, though, there's really no denying the AFC North's defensive superiority.

   "I think it's always been a (hallmark) of this division," said Pittsburgh linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who has 5.5 sacks the past three games, and who has more than taken up the slack in the absence of injured teammate James Harrison. "We have always prided ourselves on playing good defense. Baltimore (has), too. And now you've got the other two (division) teams playing great defense as well."

   All four AFC North units rank among the top five in defense versus the pass. Three of the four are in the top 12 in rush defense. Each of the defenses is in the top six in terms of fewest points allowed.

   Playing outstanding defense isn't quite new to the division. In 2009, three of the four clubs finished the season in the top five in overall defense. The Steelers and Ravens ranked 1-2 for the 2008 season. But having all four of the defenses playing so well at the same time is rare.

   Then again, the Browns (No. 22) were the only team that ranked outside of the top half of the NFL in 2010.

   Cleveland has a new coordinator (Dick Jauron), a new scheme (the 4-3 replacing the 3-4), and a new attitude in 2011.

   "We felt that we were better than maybe our numbers said we were in the past," said 10th-year veteran cornerback Sheldon Brown recently. "Now the numbers have improved and kind of (validated) that. We feel we can play (defense) with anyone."

   That assertion may be put to the test over the balance of the season, and not just for the resurgent Browns. Starting with Sunday's Pittsburgh-New England matchup, all four of the AFC North franchises will face stiffer tests the next few weeks.

   Notable is that all four defenses in the division have registered their lofty statistical rankings against somewhat questionable offenses. In the Steelers' seven outings, they have faced just one top 10 offense, four of their opponents currently rank 20th or lower offensively, and three are among the three lowest-rated.

   All but one of the Browns' six opponents are in the bottom half of the league in terms of offensive statistical ranking. Ditto the Bengals. The Ravens have faced four teams in the bottom half of offensive clubs.

   The relatively easy stretch has helped the AFC North compile the league's best aggregate record, 16-9 (.640), to date. The division is the only one in the NFL without at least one losing franchise.

   That signature claim, and the defensive ratings, might well be difficult to continue. But in a league inarguably skewed to offense, it should be pointed out the seven of the NFL's top 10 defenses have winning marks at this juncture of the year, the same number as the top 10 offensive clubs. And players on the top defensive outfits, in the AFC North in particular, seem confident they can fare well against the obvious offensive slant.

   "We feel like defense is a constant that is going to keep you in games," Bengals strong safety Chris Crocker said.

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