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
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
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.
AFC North: Toughest Division in the NFL?
Patriots Insider Top Stories
Mic'd Up: Bill Belichick vs. TexansListen as New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is mic'd up against the Houston Texans in Week Three.
Patriots InsiderYesterday at 7:11 AM
Rapoport: Pats Could Have Both QBs For Week 4NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport gives us the latest on the New England Patriots quarterback situation.
Patriots InsiderThursday at 8:54 AM
Rex Ryan Is Coming After Bill BelichickBuffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan says during press conference that if New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was playing quarterback that he would be coming after him.
Patriots InsiderThursday at 8:09 AM
Watch: Throwback Thursday- The 'Butt Fumble'New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez fumbles the ball in the most awkward of ways after running into his own teammate on Thanksgiving against the New England Patriots.
Patriots InsiderThursday at 7:41 AM