COMMENTARY | As defensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals, Mike Zimmer has done an exceptional job over the years of fielding an elite unit that has been able to match or surpass the stellar units often created by the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers.
The AFC North is no joke when it comes to defense. Even the Cleveland Browns have a tough unit each year. It won't make the stat sheet look sexy as often as the team's three AFC North counterparts, but it still can give the opposition fits at times.
With the 2013 NFL draft in the books and the most important news of free agency already written, it appears the Bengals will once again have another outstanding year on the defensive side of the football.
That said, where does Cincinnati rank when compared to the rest of the AFC North? We'll attempt to answer that question below.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
Each and every year we hear about how the Steelers are too old and will finally fall off from the top of the perch in the AFC North, especially in regards to the defense.
Sorry, that won't be happening in 2013 either.
Last season Pittsburgh allowed just 275 yards per game, best in the NFL. The losses of corner Keenan Allen and linebacker James Harrison this offseason hurt, but Cortez Allen is ready to step into a starting role and Jarvis Jones is an exciting rookie in that scheme.
The Pittsburgh defense will by no means be perfect next season, but it'll likely be the best the AFC North has to offer once again.
2. Cincinnati Bengals
If there is one defense that could shockingly take over as the best defense in the AFC North, it's the unit led by Mike Zimmer in Cincinnati.
Cincinnati only surrendered 20 points per game last year and retained all of the critical elements of the unit. Defensive end Michael Johnson is back via the franchise tag. First-round talent Dre Kirkpatrick is back in the fold after his rookie season was derailed thanks to injury.
The team even added a freak pass-rusher in the second round of the draft in the form of Margus Hunt to add to an already scary defensive line feared across the league. Rookie safety Shawn Williams looks like he'll be a starter at the strong safety spot next to the effective Reggie Nelson.
It also helps the unit has a guy by the name of Geno Atkins playing the defensive tackle spot. His presence alone makes the entire unit better. His ability to free up the linebackers behind him and drive the quarterback into the arms of defensive ends gives the Bengals a chance to not only surpass the Steelers in the AFC North, but to have a top five unit overall.
3. Baltimore Ravens
It was all doom and gloom this offseason as the Ravens lost a crop of important players to free agency. Gone are Dannelle Ellerbee, Paul Kruger and Ed Reed.
Yet, the Ravens will still have one of the NFL's best defenses.
Yes, the team is ranked third in the AFC North, but that speaks to just how elite the division truly is at this point.
A healthy Terrell Suggs is a nice place to start with the Ravens, but the real story is the return of cornerback Lardarius Webb. He is one of the best corners in the NFL and could become the best overall if he can bounce back from his season-ending injury.
Baltimore also landed a seriously exciting rookie in the form of linebacker Arthur Brown. He looks like an immediate starter and could have an impact right away. Landing an elite pass-rusher in the form of Elvis Dumervil also bodes well for the unit.
While it sounds like the Ravens won't skip a beat in 2013, it's hard to rank them higher in the AFC North with so many critical performances left up to health status.
4. Cleveland Browns
The Browns gave up over 360 yards and 23 points per game last season in what statistically was a disappointing unit.
This offseason the front office went a long way toward fixing those issues. Defensive end Desmond Bryant is an upgrade, as is former Ravens linebacker Paul Kruger. Both fit well in a sleek new 3-4 scheme the team is debuting next year.
Joe Haden is still one of the better corners in the league and D'Qwell Jackson should still be the heart and soul of the defense moving forward.
While things are looking up, there are still too many questions lingering around the unit. Who is the No. 2 corner opposite Haden? Can Kruger be productive without Suggs opposite him? How will guys like Phil Taylor perform after a scheme change?
These questions will hold the Browns back from climbing up the ladder in the AFC North, at least for now.
Chris Roling is a graduate of Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. His work has appeared on Bleacher Report, Fansided, The Cincinnati Enquirer and more. He is the co-host of a Cincinnati Bengals podcast, @BengalsCentral
You can follow Chris on Twitter @Chris_Roling
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