If a defense is only as strong as its weakest link, there’s no great explanation required as to how the Ravens last season finished No. 1 in yards allowed per game and No. 2 in scoring defense in the NFL. They were stout up the middle, disruptive off the edge and unyielding downfield.
But an offseason of high-profile departures has brought challengers to the Ravens’ defensive supremacy — not just leaguewide, but in the AFC North as well. With Za’Darius Smith and Terrell Suggs gone, their pass rush is weakened. There’s now a C.J. Mosley-sized hole at linebacker, too.
The Ravens’ defensive backfield is still elite, but up front, the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers are too strong to be be ignored. Even the Cincinnati Bengals, their glaring holes aside, still have a few Pro Bowl-level talents.
With the start of training camp just weeks away, here’s how the four teams stack up on defense and special teams entering the 2019 season.
Interior defensive line
Ranking (Nos. 1-4): Steelers, Ravens, Browns, Bengals
Yes, the Ravens had one of the NFL’s best run defenses last year, but the Steelers weren’t far behind, finishing fifth in yards allowed per game and ninth in yards allowed per carry. What the Ravens cannot replicate is Pittsburgh’s interior pass rush. Cameron Heyward finished with eight sacks, second most on the team, while Javon Hargrave and Stephon Tuitt had 6½ and five, respectively, all impressive totals for 300-plus-pound linemen.
The Ravens could’ve challenged for top billing with Gerald McCoy in purple and black, but a core of Brandon Williams, Michael Pierce, Willie Henry and Chris Wormley is rock-solid. Cleveland improved inside by signing Sheldon Richardson, who’ll pair nicely with a healthy Larry Ogunjobi. Cincinnati’s Geno Atkins, a perennial Pro Bowl selection, and Andrew Billings aren’t far behind as a duo, if at all.
Ranking: Browns, Bengals, Steelers, Ravens
Cleveland already had Myles Garrett, the division’s best pass rusher. Then the Browns traded for Olivier Vernon, now maybe the second best. When healthy, the two are complementary talents, with Garrett allowing Vernon to take on right tackles and Vernon limiting the number of double-teams Garrett should see. It would be a surprise if both don’t reach double-digit sack totals this season.
A vast gulf separates them from the rest of the AFC North. Cincinnati’s Carlos Dunlap is a well-rounded defensive end, and a healthy Carl Lawson should give the Bengals another weapon off the edge. T.J. Watt is already a star in Pittsburgh but doesn’t have much help. The Ravens need Matthew Judon to take another step forward — and for the loss of Smith and Suggs to not be too noticeable.
Ranking: Browns, Ravens, Steelers, Bengals
This might be the weakest position across the division, but someone’s got to be on top. At least Cleveland has one star: Joe Schobert was Pro Football Focus’ No. 11 linebacker last season and has nearly 250 tackles since 2017. Christian Kirksey had an injury-shortened and inconsistent 2018, but he was among the NFL's top tacklers the previous two years. Genard Avery impressed as a rookie for the Browns but might be better suited as an edge rusher.
It won’t be easy replacing Mosley in Baltimore, but the Ravens have promising, versatile options. Patrick Onwuasor came on strong late last year, and Anthony Levine Sr. is a reliable presence on passing downs. Pittsburgh added a running mate for Vince Williams and a potential star by drafting Devin Bush at No. 10 overall. Injuries hurt Cincinnati last season, especially in coverage, but Preston Brown and Nick Vigil still need to show that a complete overhaul at the position isn’t necessary.
Ranking: Ravens, Browns, Steelers, Bengals
Good luck finding a weak link in the Ravens’ pass defense. At cornerback, they have established veterans (Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr), rising stars (Marlon Humphrey and Tavon Young) and high-potential reserves (Anthony Averett and Iman Marshall). The signing of Earl Thomas could be a quick fix for last year’s takeaway problems, and fellow safeties Tony Jefferson and DeShon Elliott are well positioned to pick up the slack if injuries derail Thomas again.
The Browns have questions at one safety spot after trading away Jabrill Peppers, but cornerback Denzel Ward stood out as a rookie and should get help from Greedy Williams, a first-round talent who fell to No. 46 overall. Pittsburgh needs new cornerback Steven Nelson, now playing opposite Joe Haden, to live up to his big-money contract, though the team’s young safeties should continue to develop. Cincinnati’s safety pairing of Jessie Bates III and Shawn Williams can cover only so much for a talented but inconsistent group of corners.
Ranking: Ravens, Bengals, Steelers, Browns
Even with the retirement of longtime coordinator Jerry Rosburg, Chris Horton has inherited many of the stalwarts who’ve regularly made the Ravens’ special teams among the NFL’s best. The “Wolfpack” — kicker Justin Tucker, punter Sam Koch and long snapper Morgan Cox — is set to return for its eighth season together, with Tucker now the NFL’s highest-paid kicker. There’s an open competition at both returner spots, but the coverage teams didn’t allow a point last season.
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Randy Bullock had another strong season in Cincinnati, converting 19 of 23 field-goal attempts, while Alex Erickson emerged as a return threat. Kicking woes undercut Pittsburgh again and again last season, but it takes a team effort to rank as Pro Football Focus’ worst and Football Outsiders’ second-worst special teams unit, as Cleveland did.