2014 AFC North Preview: Defensive Once Again

Can Baltimore or Pittsburgh return to dominance and challenge Cincinnati for the AFC North title?

Since 2005, a member of the AFC North has represented the division in the Super Bowl four times, winning three titles during that span. For years, the division was perceived as one of the toughest, most hard-nosed ones in football, and entering this season, that element of grit still dominates.

While the Cincinnati Bengals will attempt to repeat as AFC North champions in 2014, both Baltimore and Pittsburgh will be focused on avoiding back-to-back .500 seasons (Pittsburgh looking to avoid its third straight), and Cleveland will attempt to become relevant in a division in which they have struggled to compete.

Here's a preview of the AFC North in reverse order based on our advanced-metric team rankings. To read more about our nERD rankings, click here.

4. Cleveland Browns

nERD: -3.66
Chance of Winning Division: 11.0%
Offensive Rank: 25th
Defensive Rank: 22nd

To say that the offseason has been chaotic for the Browns would be an insult to chaos. Their most talented player, Josh Gordon, is facing an almost certain suspension of undetermined length due to his myriad of legal issues while the team’s first-round draft pick, Johnny Manziel, has been a magnet for criticism for his off-field escapades. Welcome home, Mike Pettine.

The battle between Manziel and Brian Hoyer for the starting quarterback spot will no doubt be one of the most talked about positional races heading into the regular season. The Browns added Ben Tate presumably to be their starting running back, but then drafted Terrance West in the third round, making the situation a bit cloudier. Jordan Cameron looks to be the biggest beneficiary if Gordon is lost for an extended period, while the rest of the Browns receiving corps appears dodgy at best.

Last season, the Browns ranked 22nd according to our Adjusted Defense Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. They selected Justin Gilbert with the eighth overall draft pick, who now pairs with All-Pro cornerback Joe Haden. Donte Whitner comes over from San Francisco, adding more snarl to the secondary. If second-year linebacker Barkevious Mingo can add a pass-rushing element, this defense could end up as a pleasant surprise.

The Browns have talked about featuring a run-heavy approach offensively, which could keep them in games if the defense holds up. But like it or not, this team will be mired in controversy and media attention no matter what they do. It's almost certain that Manziel will start at quarterback at some point, and how he handles the pressure will go a long way in determining the fate of the Browns this season.

3. Baltimore Ravens

nERD: -2.05
Chance of Winning Division: 14.2%
Offensive Rank: 27th
Defensive Rank: 12th

In 2013, the Ravens lost four games by a field goal or less, making their 8-8 record a bit misleading. The team was unable to run the football, and as a result, they ranked dead last in terms of Adjusted Rushing NEP. While the offense was nauseating for the majority of the season, the defense ranked ninth in terms of overall defensive efficiency. If the Ravens can improve on offense, they have the makings of a competitive squad.

Despite having the fifth-most pass attempts last season, Joe Flacco finished 22nd in Passing NEP. With absolutely no run game, Flacco was forced to throw, forming a vicious circle of death on offense. Following his two-game suspension, Ray Rice will join Bernard Pierce and Lorenzo Taliaferro as the runners to be featured in new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s zone-blocking scheme. Torrey Smith could also benefit from Kubiak’s arrival, possibly assuming an Andre Johnson-like role in the new offense. Dennis Pitta’s return from injury adds another weapon to the arsenal.

As has historically been the case, the Ravens’ defense carried the team in 2013. The team also spent their first three draft picks on defense, including C.J. Mosely, who should compete for a starting linebacker spot in Baltimore’s 3-4 defense. Haloti Ngata is still a dominant force up front, and Terrell Suggs can still provide pressure off the edge. The secondary is anchored by Lardarius Webb and safety Matt Elam. Jimmy Smith has tremendous potential which the Ravens desperately want to become realized.

The defense in Baltimore again figures to be the teams’ strength and should provide opposing offenses difficulties all season long. If the offensive line can improve and simultaneously mesh with the new offensive scheme, all aspects of the Ravens’ offense should improve, including the play of Joe Flacco. If the offense catches up with the defense, this could be a dangerous team.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers

nERD: 0.11
Chance of Winning Division: 27.8%
Offensive Rank: 13th
Defensive Rank: 20th

Finishing 8-8 for the second-straight season in 2013, the Steelers now look to get back to their historical winning ways. Normally a stellar defensive team, Pittsburgh finished 14th in total scoring defense, but ranked 21st in rushing defense. As much as the organization denies they are in a rebuild, this is a team in transition.

Despite finishing last season as the 10th-best quarterback in terms of Passing NEP, Ben Roethlisberger is still being largely overlooked. Over the last three seasons, Roethlisberger has completed 63.6% of his throws while being sacked a whopping 112 times. Le’Veon Bell looks to build on his strong rookie season and is joined by newly-signed LeGarrette Blount in the backfield. Antonio Brown finished second in both catches (110) and receiving yards (1,499) last season, and should remain a high-volume, elite option in 2014. If Heath Miller is fully recovered from injury, he could step in as the main red zone option for this team.

In an effort to inject youth into the defense, the Steelers drafted Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt, both of whom have a shot at starting this season. Lawrence Timmons heads the linebacking corps with Jason Worilds looking to build on his strong 2013 campaign. The secondary features Ike Taylor (34) and Troy Polamalu (33), both are whom are showing signs of age. The lack of depth on the defensive line and an aging secondary will probably prevent this defense from joining the elite units in 2014.

As is the case with almost every team, the offensive line will go a long way in determining how the season will go for the Steelers. Inconsistency and injuries have plagued the unit the last two seasons, but with new line coach Mike Munchak in town, there’s reason for optimism. Keeping Ben upright could push the Steelers into contention for the AFC North title.

1. Cincinnati Bengals

nERD: 4.57
Chance of Winning Division: 47.0%
Offensive Rank: 14th
Defensive Rank: 3rd

The Bengals have the eighth-best nERD ranking heading into 2014, and are projected to win 9.2 games according to our metrics. Featuring a defensive group that finished second last season in terms of Adjusted Defensive NEP, the Bengals are the most complete team in the AFC North.

Andy Dalton finished last season ranked 13th in Passing NEP under the guidance of offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. New offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has made his intentions about becoming more balanced very clear this off-season, which could benefit Dalton’s efficiency.

Giovani Bernard will combine with Jeremy Hill to form what could be a devastating 1-2 punch running the football. A.J. Green quietly continues to build a historic resume now entering his fourth season. Marvin Jones is due for touchdown regression, but still presents a size advantage starting opposite of Green.

Looking at the Bengals’ defense on paper, you’re hard-pressed to find any weaknesses. With the return on Geno Atkins from injury, the defensive line is one of the leagues’ best. The Bengals took a chance on Vontaze Burfict in 2012, and it paid off handsomely last season as he led the team with 115 tackles. Burfict is joined by Rey Maualuga, one of the hardest hitters in the game. Leon Hall, who missed 11 games in 2013, returns to lead the secondary. First-round draft pick Darqueze Dennard has been getting rave reviews so far this pre-season from head coach Marvin Lewis, too.

If Dalton can protect the ball in 2014 (20 interceptions a year ago), the Bengals have a great shot at making the playoffs, and advancing beyond the wild-card round for the first time in 23 years. The interior lines on both sides of the ball are among the best in the NFL. According to our metrics, the Bengals are almost 2-to-1 favorites to win the division, and with the talent they have across their roster, it’s easy to see why.