July 28, 2013; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (top left) calls a play during training camp at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

2013 AFC North Ranking Unit By Unit: Defensive Front 7


Aug 15, 2013; Cleveland, OH, USA; Detroit Lions wide receiver Pat Edwards (83) is tackled by Cleveland Browns linebacker Paul Kruger (99) in the first quarter of a preseason game at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Mike and Mike in the Morning previewed the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals Monday morning as we shared here on FoS and they completed their AFC North review with the Ravens and Steelers as reviewed on FoS here. As the pre-season has begun, and the regular season is creeping up, FoS will be sharing a division preview Unit by Unit of each of the 4 teams. While position ranking could be fun, doing so for each of the 25 positions, including Kicker, Punter and Return Specialist is a little tedious and does not help take a bigger picture into account. Also with the Bengals in a 43 Defense, and the other teams in a 34 variation, Front 7s are more important then splitting up DLine and Linebackers. These reviews will include the following units:

Quarterbacks (8/12/13) Backfield (8/13/13) Pass Catchers (8/14/13) 

Offensive Line(8/15/13) Front 7s (8/16/13) Defensive Backs (8/17/13)

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Today we turn to the defensive side of the ball with what may be the most difficult rankings yet: The Defensive Front 7s. Due to many new faces in the division, the loss of some old ones and just the number of players considered, 7, these rankings provide the most dynamic of all. The other part is a good problem for the division, it is stocked with some historic Front 7s, Pittsburgh and Baltimore, a newly dominant, Cincinnati, and what looks to be a rising terror, Cleveland. Again these rankings are for this year alone so while rookies, such as Barkevious Mingo and Jarvis Jones, might be long term stalwarts their impact this year is only considered. Also how teams can/will adjust to new players in their system is also taken into consideration. It is expected that these rankings create the most disagreement, and welcomed conversation.

Ranking:

  1. Cincinnati Bengals – The Bengals are the only 4-3 team in the division but also hold down the tightly contested top spot for Front 7s. The Bengals line has Geno Atkins, a rising stud, at defensive tackle and Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson, other rising studs, at defensive end. The other player on their line is a steady consistent performer in Domata Peko. Johnson and Dunlap provide the pass rush but also are disruptive in the run game combining their length, athleticism and quickness to be 2 way players. Atkins provides interior pass rush, not all that disimilar to Warren Sapp where Peko holds down the interior in the run game. Vontaze Burfict was a revelation as a undrafted free agent, passed over due to poor workouts and even worse character concerns. How James Harrison transitions to the 43 from years in the 34 will be definitive to this defense.
  2. Cleveland Browns – Though the Ravens and Steelers have spent years with claims to the top 2 spots their continued transition, as well as age and injury, make way for Cleveland to rise up the ranks. The Browns are transitioning to the 34 defense under Ray Horton, a former Steelers coach. Barring injury the Browns 3 defensive linemen will provide stout run defense with some dynamic pass rush. NT Phil Taylor showed flashes of his talent last year, and this off-season has been a bear to deal with. New arrival Desmond Bryant is both stout and quick allowing him to be two way player. Ahtyba Rubin will primarily hold down in the run game and keep offensive lineman off of the team’s linebackers. Jabaal Sheard and free agent pickup, from the Ravens, Paul Kruger will provide the pass rush from the OLB positions. Kruger showed he could be dominant with 13.5 sacks last year, including playoffs, on a part time basis. Sheard led the Browns conservative 43 D last year with 7 sacks but will be unleashed under Horton. Steady pro D’Qwell Jackson is the heart and head of the defense from one ILB position with 2nd year player Craig Robertson being Horton’s “Ace in the hole.” In 2 pre-season games the front 7 has provided great pressure on pass plays and great push on run plays. Expect this to continue into the season. 1st Rounder Barkevious Mingo will be an added pass rush component all year.
  3. Baltimore Ravens – The Ravens lost key contributors from their Front 7 last year including Kruger to the Browns, Darnelle Ellerbe to the Miami Dolphins and Ray Lewis to the broadcast booth. The Ravens still boast Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs who are as dynamic of players as the division has. The team also brought in Elvis Dumervil who will be transitioning to the 34 defense after his time in the 43 in Denver. The aging Chris Canty was brought in and will start on the line with Ngata, along with Arthur Jones. All new inside linebackers are still to be decided after Ellerbe and Lewis left, Rolondo McClain signed then retired and Jameel McClain will start the year on the PUP list. The defensive backfield may be under more pressure then in years past and they lost 3 starters as well, which we will cover tomorrow.
  4. Pittsburgh Steelers – The tone setter for the division on defense has been the Steelers throughout the decades. Unfortunately the Steelers have seen a slow decline in their Front 7, with Dick LaBeau’s creative genius making up for some of the lack of talent and the increased age. Gone are James Harrison and Casey Hampton and in is Jarvis Jones. Jones is currently not 1st on the depth chart but should find his way to starting early in the season as the team will need his dynamic play. The play of Lamar Woodley on the outside and Lawrence Timmons on the inside may be greatly effected by Harrison’s departure. How will they fair without him taking the blocking attention of the other team? How did his attitude set the tone for what they did on defense? Will Troy Polamalu, who often plays as a linebacker, be able to stay healthy enough to help the Front 7? Can rookie Jones get to the QB after a poor performance at the combine?

What did we miss? How would you rank these 4? Did we “disrespect” your team? Tell us what you think.

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Tags: Baltimore Ravens Cincinnati Bengals Nfl Pittsburgh Steelers Rankings