Unit comparisons in the AFC North

This week: <b>Defense</b><br><br> There are plenty of fancy statistics we could look at for defense. Like offensive stats, only one matters on defense, points surrendered. This tale of the tape is rather favorable for the Browns, who had the best overall defense in the North last season. The Browns are followed by the Steelers, Ravens, and (distantly last) the Bengals.

Breaking down the defenses, we have the defensive lines, linebacking corps, and the defensive backs. However, given the different schemes, we will look at the front sevens first, and then the defensive backfields, comparing these units on each team.

The main job of the front seven is to stop the run. They help stop the pass by rushing the passer, but DBs also help in run support. We see that as a wash and will evaluate the front seven of each North team in terms of run defense.

In terms of yards surrendered per game, the Steelers have the best front seven. In terms of yards per carry, the Ravens have the best. With points per game yielded as a tiebreaker, the 2002 rankings are as follows:

1. Pittsburgh
2. Baltimore
3. Cincinnati
4. Cleveland

We could hold a long and unresolved debate about which front seven is better, Pittsburgh or Baltimore. Ravens fans will point out that Ray Lewis will be back and Steeler fans will counter with the return of a healthy Kendrell Bell, the defensive player that Atlanta Falcons QB Michael Vick says he fears most. If sacks could be used in this equation, the Steelers front seven comes out on top.

The Ravens decided to address this problem by drafting sack machine Terrell Suggs in the first round last April. 4th round pick Jarrett Johnson will provide some more depth on the defensive line. Baltimore should be just a shade better up front, while the Steelers did little to upgrade this unit. The Ravens and Steelers should be in the top 3 in terms of run defense in 2003 and both teams will apply heavy pressure on the opposing QB.

Coach Lewis has given plenty of attention to the Bengals defense during the off-season. He has attempted to upgrade the front seven dramatically. Even the loss of LB Takeo Spikes should help, at least in terms of chemistry. Lewis needs more effort out of this unit to begin to approach the success in Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Just so happens that Lewis is quite intimate with both defenses. Kevin Hardy will provide the leadership the Bengals so badly need and newly acquired DT John Thornton will be the lynchpin. As Thornton goes, so will go the Bengals front seven.

The Browns fired their defensive coordinator and subsequently gutted their linebacker core. The defensive line has been a perennial underachiever. Teams are often content to stay on the ground and keep the Browns passing attack on the sidelines. A lot will rest on the shoulders of rookie LB Chaun Thompson. Cleveland has upgraded the speed at linebacker considerably, but gave up loads of experience in the process. What the Browns really need is better play from Courtney Brown and Gerard Warren. The two behemoths can take most of the pressure off of the LBs, allowing them to use their athleticism to make plays.

The rankings of the front sevens in the AFC North is not likely to change in 2003. Injuries (particularly on the Bengals defensive line), along with the play of Brown and Warren, are the wildcards.

In order to rank the defensive backfields for 2002, we used the passer rating of the opposing quarterbacks.

1. Baltimore (73.4, which was 6th best in the NFL)
2. Pittsburgh (75.6, 8th)
3. Cleveland (77.8, 13th)
4. Cincinnati (99.9, 32nd)

Why run against the Bengals when you can pass at will? Tampa Bay had the top-ranked pass defense last year, with opposing quarterbacks compiling a 48.4 rating. Cincinnati is a long way from a Super Bowl, if the Bucs are any measure. There is some question whether the Bengals actually addressed this problem during the off-season. Drafting a gunshot victim in Weathersby is a rather dubious solution. CB Tory James and S Rogers Beckett aren't much better. Teams will continue to go after the secondary in 2003 unless Lewis can figure out a way to generate tremendous pressure up front.

As for the Browns, they lost their best defensive back in Corey Fuller to the division rival Ravens. Cleveland's loss is Baltimore's gain. The Ravens should look even better defending the pass in 2003. The Browns, on the other hand, will likely yield many more points than they did in 2002. Cleveland's defense could come apart at the seams, with Lewis' defense sneaking past them and out of infamy.

The Steelers pass defense rankings probably surprises a number of people out there. What most folks don't realize is that Pittsburgh's problem was Lee Flowers, who is now a Denver Bronco. The only other off-season upgrade the Steelers made besides special teams is at the strong safety position. Troy Polamalu, if he can stay healthy, will significantly upgrade Pittsburgh's pass defense, already ranked 8th best in 2002. However, the play and importance of a rookie is notoriously difficult to predict. The edge in pass defense in 2003 has to remain with the Ravens. In fact, Baltimore did more to upgrade its pass defense than any other team in the AFC North (they were on top to begin with).

Overall, look for the Ravens to be very difficult to score against in 2003. The Steelers defense will be much better, but will it be enough to compensate for a less potent offense? Pittsburgh's special teams best be much improved, or Steeler fans could be in for a disappointing season. The Bengals will be better, but don't expect any miracles. Cincinnati still does not stack up very well against the rest of the AFC North. Cleveland should have been looking to take the next step and an appearance in the AFC Championship game. Instead, this team brings to the 2003 table even more question marks than they had before the 2002 season started.

Jim Russell

Steel City Insider Top Stories