On Thursday, BaltimoreRavens.com ranked the offenses around the AFC North, and now, the defenses take the spotlight.
It may be early, as training camps don't officially begin until later this month, but some things have already been gleaned from offseason minicamps.
No. 1 – Baltimore Ravens: Perhaps it is because I see this defense every day, but I believe the Ravens will once again rise to the NFL's best defense in Mattison's first year and Ray Lewis' 14th.2008 – 2nd overall (261.1 yards allowed per game), 2nd pass (179.7), 3rd rush (81.4)
There are several factors that analysts point to as the triggers for Baltimore's potential fall out of the NFL's top six defenses, a distinction enjoyed in Charm City since 2003 – mainly Rex Ryan's decision to become head coach with the New York Jets, bringing linebacker Bart Scott and safety Jim Leonhard along with him.
But there are definitely worthy replacements waiting in the locker room. Second-year linebackers Tavares Gooden and Jameel McClain can step in for Scott. Gooden, who has looked tremendously fast sideline to sideline in Organized Team Activities (OTAs), will get the start, but McClain has also turned in some solid practices.
Dawan Landry said he feels that he can definitely return to the promising form he showed early in his career after suffering a season-ending spinal cord concussion last year. And perhaps the biggest reason why the Ravens should be able to maintain their elite status is defensive tackle Kelly Gregg's comeback from microfracture surgery on his left knee.
There will probably be a feeling-out period for new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, but if he can harness the incredible talent he has at his disposal, the Ravens could surpass the Pittsburgh Steelers as the league's best unit.
No. 2 – Pittsburgh Steelers: Doubt there will be much, if any, of a drop-off for the AFC North rivals.2008 – 1st overall (237.2), 1st pass (156.9), 2nd rush (80.2)
The defending Super Bowl champions did not make any huge moves in the offseason. Why would they after such a dominant showing in 2008?
Still, it will be difficult for reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison to duplicate his 16-sack performance now that he is on the national radar, not to mention LaMarr Woodley's similarly impressive 11.5 sacks. That pass rush is key to coordinator Dick LeBeau's blitzing 3-4 scheme, which has masked some mediocre cornerbacks in the past.
As long as Troy Polamalu is patrolling the secondary, however, the Steelers have one of the best playmaking safeties in the game to solidify their pass defense.
The biggest question is up the middle, where head coach Mike Tomlin has expressed concern with nose tackle Casey Hampton's weight. Pittsburgh also felt comfortable letting longtime middle linebacker Larry Foote go to free agency, making way for the young Lawrence Timmons to step up.
No. 3 – Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals surprised a lot of analysts by finishing 12th overall on defense last year.2008 – 12th overall (325.5), 15th pass (205.4), 21st rush (129.1)
Cincinnati's defense – which has been derided in years past – is coming off a promising campaign under no-nonsense coordinator Mike Zimmer.
And, the team made a commitment to improving by signing talented defensive tackle Tank Johnson and safety Roy Williams in the offseason.
With linebacker Keith Rivers, a player that many have pegged as a breakout star for 2009, coming back from a broken jaw that ended his rookie year early, the Bengals will have a field general for their front seven. Rivers will also be joined by former USC teammate Rey Maualuga, although some have expressed concern that Maualuga struggles in coverage even when Cincinnati has him playing outside linebacker.
A second season under Zimmer could mean another step forward for a routinely disappointing unit.
No. 4 – Cleveland Browns: Rob Ryan has top units in his bloodlines, but I think it will take some time to get the right personnel.2008 – 26th overall (356.5), 14th pass (204.6), 28th rush (151.9)
Under new head coach Eric Mangini and new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, the Browns are converting to a version of the "46" defense that his father (along with twin brother Rex's), Buddy Ryan, made famous with the oppressive Chicago Bears of the 1980s.
But there is a big risk in playing such a scheme, as it relies on constantly playing a safety close to the line of scrimmage and putting one safety and two corners on islands.
With the mountainous Shaun Rogers and Corey Williams clogging the middle, there will be a good push into the backfield, but linebackers D'Qwell Jackson and Kamerion Wimbley have not lived up to expectations in recent years.
With teams in the NFL using the spread offense more and more, committing so many defenders to apply pressure could bite the Browns in the end.