In this post, I ranked the offensive position groups of the AFC North heading into the season. Now let's shift to defense and special teams. In early July, I said the Steelers had the AFC North's best defense, and I'm sticking to my guns. If we look at the defenses group by group, you'll see where I'm coming from. And if you don't agree with me, explain yourself.
Defensive line -- 1. Ravens, 2. Bengals, 3. Steelers, 4. Browns: The Ravens' upgrades on the defensive line didn't get as much pub as the offseason overhaul at wide receiver, but the team put a major emphasis on reinforcing an aging unit with Cory Redding, Terrence Cody, Art Jones and converted linebacker Paul Kruger. The Bengals, the division's only 4-3 team, have talent, too, and early-season sack specialist Antwan Odom returns from injury. Age is a concern for the Steelers.
Linebackers -- 1. Steelers, 2. Ravens, 3. Bengals, 4. Browns: The Steelers have a great group of linebackers, one of the league's best. Premier pass rushers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley are a load to handle, and Lawrence Timmons is blossoming into a fine player. The Ravens need more from Terrell Suggs after a poor 2009 season, but all indications are that he'll bounce back in 2010. Cincinnati's Rey Maualuga and Keith Rivers have a lot of potential, but the Bengals can do better than Dhani Jones at middle linebacker. Signing Scott Fujita from the Super Bowl champs was a nice move by the Browns.
1. Bengals, 2. Browns, 3. Steelers, 4. Ravens
: In Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph, the Bengals have one of the NFL's best cornerback tandems, and they're just now hitting their prime. That's a scary thought for AFC North offenses. The Browns deserve props for upgrading their corners, trading for Sheldon Brown and drafting Joe Haden with the seventh pick in the draft.
's Peter King thinks that at cornerback, the Ravens have the
of all contenders. I don't know about all that, but they definitely have the worst cornerback crew in the division.
Safeties -- 1. Steelers, 2. Ravens, 3. Bengals, 4. Browns: With Tom Zbikowski, Haruki Nakamura and Ken Hamlin, the Ravens have great backups at the position. Unfortunately, we know this because Ed Reed isn't healthy. That's why I like the Steelers' group over the Ravens'. Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark are an excellent tandem -- assuming Polamalu will play all 16 games. If Reed will be ready for Week 1, though, I will probably change my tune.
Special teams specialists --
1. Browns, 2. Steelers, 3. Ravens, 4. Bengals
: Hey, the Browns finally take top billing at something! Losing punter Dave Zastudil hurts, but the Browns still have reliable kicker Phil Dawson and the league's most dangerous returner in Josh Cribbs. The Steelers are set with party boy placekicker Jeff Reed and punter Daniel Sepulveda. The Ravens will have a solid kicker, whether it's Billy Cundiff or Shayne Graham, and Sam Koch is very good, but they need a couple of returners to step up and lock down jobs.