Tony Grossi, PFW's Browns correspondent and longtime Browns beat writer for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, tweeted the following on Monday morning:
"Up to minute NFL def rankings: 1. Cincy, 2. Pitts., 3. Balt., 4. Cleve. Yes, they're playing NFC West teams."
Grossi, an astute league and division observer, raises a good point — weak offenses can help a defense's ranking. The Cardinals, whom the Steelers beat Sunday, are 17th in yards gained, but every other NFC West club is near the bottom of the league in offense. The 49ers are 27th, the Rams 28th and the Seahawks 31st in yards gained.
And indeed, the defenses of the AFC North have largely cleaned up against the NFC West. The Browns limited the Seahawks to 137 yards on 52 plays Sunday. The Steelers, for their part, held Seattle to just 164 yards in Week Two. The Bengals limited a then-struggling San Francisco offense to 226 yards on 64 plays in Week Three. The Ravens held the Rams in check in Week Three, allowing just 244 yards on 63 plays.
But we are not here to pick on the NFC West. We are here to highlight why the defenses of the AFC North are off to such good starts — and whether they can sustain this momentum.
The PFW Spin
Here's a team-by-team look at the North's stellar stop units. Rankings and statistics are as of Monday afternoon and do not include the Ravens-Jaguars Monday-night game:
Bengals (278.5 yards allowed per game — first in the NFL; 4.55 yards allowed per play — second in the NFL)
Positives: They have a deep defensive line. OLBs Thomas Howard and Manny Lawson have helped bolster the LB corps. The secondary is solid. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is one of the NFL's best.
Concerns: MLB Rey Maualuga (ankle) is reportedly expected to miss the Week Eight game at Seattle. The Bengals play four of their next six on the road, including road trips to Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
Outlook: This is an aggressive, sound, well-coached defense that has been tough against the run and the pass. A top-five finish in yards allowed is within its scope.
Steelers (279.0 yards allowed per game — second in the NFL; 4.74 yards allowed per play — third in the NFL)
Positives: The Steelers have endured several injuries and have continued to play at a high level, a testament to their depth. This is annually one of the NFL's top defenses, and 2011 appears to be no different. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's scheme is proven and carried out to a "T."
Concerns: DE Aaron Smith will miss the rest of the season with a foot injury, which hurts the DL depth. ROLB James Harrison (eye) has missed several games. The run defense has struggled far more than in past seasons. While the pass defense has been generally solid this season, how the secondary fares vs. New England on Sunday will be a truer test. The Steelers have surrendered 215 or more net passing yards three times this season.
Outlook: The Steelers and their defense will be judged on how they play against top competition, especially opponents with strong passing attacks.
Ravens (286.2 yards allowed per game — third in the NFL; 4.51 yards allowed per play — first in the NFL)
Positives: The Ravens are on pace to notch 48 sacks after notching just 27 a season ago. Their foremost defensive stars (MLB Ray Lewis, DL Haloti Ngata, S Ed Reed, OLB Terrell Suggs) are playing very well — Ngata particularly. Defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano's first season on the job in Baltimore is off to a great start.
Concerns: No defense in the division has perhaps played worse this season than when the Ravens were shredded by the Titans in Week Two. Titans QB Matt Hasselbeck threw for 358 yards in a surprising 26-13 Tennessee win.
Outlook: As with Pittsburgh, how Baltimore plays in January — and how it defends the pass in big games — is what bears watching.
Browns (291.0 yards allowed per game — fourth in the NFL; 4.74 yards allowed per play — fourth in the NFL)
Positives: The play of the Browns' defense is one of the division's biggest surprises. The defense, under the leadership of new coordinator Dick Jauron, has employed a 4-3 scheme with success. MLB D'Qwell Jackson, who missed most of the previous two seasons with pectoral injuries, is in the midst of a wonderful comeback season playing behind a stout defensive line led by DT Ahtyba Rubin, one of the AFC's top under-the-radar performers. CB Joe Haden has played at a Pro Bowl level, emerging as one of the conference's top cover corners.
Concerns: This isn't an especially deep defense, and two games against tormentors Baltimore and Pittsburgh, as well as a potent Houston offense, loom later in the season.
Outlook: This defense has some relatively unknown but legitimate good players, with Haden having the potential to be a star for many years. A top-10 finish in yards allowed is a reasonable goal, given the schedule and the personnel.