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Vensel: Reed injury drops Ravens' D to No. 2 in AFC North

I expected to get citywide praise for anointing the Ravens as the AFC North's top offense entering 2010, though it was an obvious decision.

Instead, I got hammered by Cincy fans who were pissed I ranked their Bengals squad third. Oh well.

Today, I focus on the other side of the ball, a tricky task in this defense-oriented division. In 2009, the Ravens, Bengals and Steelers finished third, fourth and fifth in total defense, respectively. The three teams were separated by fewer than five yards a game. How will they shake out in 2010?

No.1 Pittsburgh Steelers: Bookended by James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, the relentless Steelers terrorize quarterbacks with the best of them. And they'll be stout against the run again thanks to Aaron Smith's return to the lineup. Troy Polamalu (left, photo by AP) is the X-factor.

The Pro-Bowl safety, a human eraser just like Ed Reed in Baltimore, is looking to bounce back from an injury-riddled 2009. With Polamalu playing in only five games, the Steelers' secondary was their Achilles' heel.

If he can stay healthy, the Steelers defense will be elite again. If not, it will be another long season in the Steel City.

No. 2 Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens would have topped the list if not for Reed's injury issues.
The All-Pro free safety recently said he's "35 percent" healthy after offseason hip surgery, and it's unclear if he'll be ready to go by Week 1. Reed's potential replacements are adequate, but none can cover up weaknesses like him — and Baltimore has a concerning number of them.

Aging icon Ray Lewis can still stone the run, but he has become almost statuesque in pass coverage. Terrell Suggs skipped most of the OTAs — leading many male fans to reluctantly wonder what Suggs looks like with his shirt off.

A year ago, a sluggish pass rush made things tough for the secondary. Now, with two of the Ravens' top three corners rehabbing major knee injuries, there is added pressure on Suggs, rookie Sergio Kindle and Co. to chase down QBs.

I've learned to never count out this defense, so I'm already Googling recipes for crow in case they prove me wrong.

No. 3 Cincinnati Bengals: Sorry, Cincinnati. I'm sure me saying the Bengals can still be a top-10 defense won't absolve me of more criticism. Oh well.

There's plenty to like about the Bengals. Coordinator Mike Zimmer did wonders with this unit. Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph are one heck of a cornerback tandem. I like the physicality of Domata Peko and Ray Maualuga.

The Bengals finally have a tough defense to play against.

The Steelers and Ravens are simply tougher — not to mention more talented, experienced and complete.

No. 4 Cleveland Browns: The rebuilding Browns are clearly dead-last, but there are some signs of life.

They bolstered a budding secondary with rookie corner Joe Haden and veteran Sheldon Brown. They brought in linebacker Scott Fujita from the Super Bowl champs. And they smartly hung on to beefy nose tackle Shaun Rogers.

Will the Browns be good? Of course not. But they will be better, and that's all they can really hope for.

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Matt Vensel is a content creator at b. Follow him on Twitter: @mattvensel.

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