2017 AFC North Breakdown by Position: The Defense and Special Teams

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During the month of August, the Last Word On Sports NFL department will be breaking down every division in the league by position. This article contains a position-by-position breakdown of the AFC North defenses. The breakdown will contain “the best” at each unit followed by “the rest” in descending order.

2017 AFC North Breakdown by Position: The Defense and Special Teams

Defensive Line

The Best: Cincinnati Bengals

The Rest: Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens

Oddly enough, the defensive line seems to be a strength for each team in the AFC North. Truthfully, ranking them was the most difficult part. There’s a lot of parity with the defensive lines, so ranking these was like splitting hairs. But at the end of the day, the Bengals edged out the Steelers here. With Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins anchoring down the line, almost any nose tackle will succeed. Thus is the case with Pat Sims.

The Steelers, much like the Bengals, have two solid anchors on the line. Cameron Heyward and Javon Hargrave look like world beaters right now, and they seem totally in sync. Stephon Tuitt also succeeds when he’s on the field, but that’s to be expected. It’s the Steelers, and that team has two constants. They draft well, and their line play is always good.

The Cleveland Browns are the most interesting of the defensive lines. With Myles Garrett and Emmanuel Ogbah, the definitely look the most athletic of the four lines. Additionally, Danny Shelton looks poised for a breakout year. It’s been a while since the Browns had a Pro Bowl pass rusher (2001), but hey, you never know. The Ravens still have a good defensive line with Chris Wormley and Patrick Ricard, but their linebackers definitely help them out a lot.

Linebacker

The Best: Cleveland Browns

The Rest: Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals

Again, this competition is so close. Pretty much every team has a strong linebacking corps, but (somewhat surprisingly) the Cleveland Browns take the cake here. With tackling machine Christian Kirksey and defensive stud Jamie Collins, the Browns have silently built a solid linebacking crew. In a 4-2-5 defense, they’ll definitely be great anchors.

The Steelers have Ryan ShazierBud Dupree, and the ageless wonder, James Harrison. Need I really say more than that? That’s a solid linebacker crew already, and they only seem to be getting better, even with Harrison at 39. Oh yeah, and not to mention T.J. Watt. You might know his brother.

Moving on to the Ravens, they boast the great Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley. Those two, along with rookie Tyus Bowser, should be a great core. Suggs can help to mentor Bowser, and then help him to move next to Mosley to make a great tackling duo.

The Bengals, even though they rank last, still have some solid pieces. If only Vontaze Burfict could get a better head on his shoulders, then they might be even better. Aside from him, there’s Vincent Rey and middle man Kevin Minter. Great stuff, no doubt, but still not as good as the other three teams in the AFC North.

Cornerback

The Best: Cincinnati Bengals

The Rest: Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns

From worst to first come the Cincinnati Bengals. With Dre Kirkpatrick and Adam Jones on either side, the Bengals have the best outer secondary in the AFC North. However, Jones is suspended (again) for the first game of the season. Once again, Cincinnati would be so much better off if their best players could just get out of their own ways. In addition to those two, Darqueze Dennard is certainly a rising talent.

With Artie Burns and William Gay, the Steelers also excel in secondary talent. Senquez Golson would also help out, if he could just stay healthy. Ross Cockrell and Cameron Sutton will likely be the backups for the Steelers, and they can most likely contribute as well. When all is said and done, Pittsburgh’s secondary finally seems to be all set. Baltimore carries Brandon Carr and Marlon Humphrey as their cornerbacks. Time can only tell if Humphrey will pan out, but Carr is an alright player.

It’s amazing how far the Cleveland Browns cornerbacks have fallen off. Only a few years back, Joe Haden seemed like one of the best shutdown cornerbacks in the entire league. Nowadays, he seems like an injury-ridden mess. With rookie Howard Wilson now on board, the Browns are looking to add some length to their secondary. Jamar Taylor played well last year, but who knows how he’ll perform in 2017. The Browns just seem to be inconsistent in their secondary.

Safety

The Best: Baltimore Ravens

The Rest: Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns

This is where the Baltimore Ravens really come on strong. With Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson, their starting safeties are downright explosive. Behind them, they have Lardarius Webb and Otha Foster. Those are some great backups, especially in a sport riddled with injuries. If Weddle or Jefferson get hurt, in come Webb or Foster. It’s a well-oiled machine.

Here comes those Cincinnati Bengals again. This time, George Iloka and Shawn Williams are on the safety roster. Iloka is a pretty good player in recent Madden games, so that has to count for something. Additionally, the young Williams should really start to produce this year. Moving on to their main rival Steelers, their safeties are pretty confusing. Robert Golden and Sean Davis take those spots for the Steel City, and they’re alright. They both hit pretty hard, though Golden is maybe a bit undersized? Nothing really to speak of there.

The Cleveland Browns safety position is in trouble. Ed Reynolds, their breakout safety from last year, is now injured. Although Ibraheim Campbell and Derrick Kindred both look promising, nothing is ever so easy in Cleveland. No doubt about it, Jabrill Peppers is an exciting player, but what happens when he is confined to normal positioning? It’s a rock and a hard place for Cleveland’s safeties.

Kicker

The Best: Baltimore Ravens

The Rest: Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns

Justin Tucker is the best kicker in the league, in his physical prime. Enough said, really. The Steelers have Chris Boswell, and while he’s a good kicker, he’s nowhere near Tucker. Then, the Bengals come in with Randy Bullock. While somewhat undersized, Bullock will definitely be getting the job done. And hopefully, Zane Gonzalez can be the new Phil Dawson for the Cleveland Browns of today. Maybe even the new Lou Groza.

Punter

The Best: Cleveland Browns

The Rest: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers

Super Bowl 50 Champion Punter Britton Colquitt is very much a punting wizard in the AFC North and the league as a whole. Really, the Browns offense and defense are lucky to have him. The Baltimore Ravens compliment their league-best kicker with a solid punter in Sam Koch. Outside of those two, the Bengals have the next best. Hopefully for their offense and its dreadful line, Kevin Huber can masterfully place some punts. The Steelers bring up the rear with Jordan Berry. Not a horrible punter by any means, but definitely not fantastic.

Returner

The Best: Pittsburgh Steelers

The Rest: Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens

Antonio Brown is just as electric a receiver as he is a punt returner. Fans can fully expect him to run at least one all the way back this year. The Bengals use cornerback Adam Jones as their punt returner. He’ll be lightning quick this year, once he stops being suspended. After that, the Browns will likely use Duke Johnson as their punt returner. As a now-converted receiver, it will be interesting to watch him show off his new moves. Michael Campanaro has quick feet and shifty moves for the Ravens, but that’s basically it. Nevertheless, his quickness will likely get him pretty far on a few returns.

Take a look at the AFC North’s best by position on the offensive side of the football.

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