AFC North position rankings: Defensive line

February, 21, 2012
2/21/12
2:00
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The AFC North is running a series for the next two weeks where every position will be ranked and what could change at that position.

DEFENSIVE LINE

1. BENGALS: Cincinnati didn't have to blitz because it got tremendous pass rush out of its front four. In fact, every member of the defensive line recorded at least a half of a sack. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins had a breakout season with 7.5 sacks, and Jonathan Fanene recorded a career-high 6.5 sacks. The Bengals' defensive line would have been stronger if Carlos Dunlap, the team's top pass-rusher, had been healthy in the second half of the season. Defensive end Frostee Rucker had his most complete season, and defensive tackle Domata Peko was the Bengals' top lineman against the run. The biggest negative was how a strong run defense slowly cracked down the stretch and in the wild-card loss at Houston. What could change: Rucker and Fanene are unrestricted free agents, and the Bengals have a great shot of keeping both. Rucker proved valuable because he replaced a struggling Michael Johnson at defensive end midway through the season.

2. RAVENS: This group started strong but faded toward the end of the season. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata wasn't as dominant. In his first 11 games, he recorded five sacks, forced two fumbles and recovered three fumbles (returning one 28 yards for his first career touchdown). In his last five regular-season games, he failed to record a sack, forced fumble or fumble recovery. Nose tackle Terrence Cody was in much better shape this past season when he replaced longtime starter Kelly Gregg. It showed in great efforts against the Jets and Texans, but he disappeared late in the season. Defensive end Cory Redding enjoyed his best season since 2006, finishing with 4.5 sacks. The line played a strong role in limiting teams to 3.5 yards per carry, which tied San Francisco for best in the NFL. What could change: Rookie fifth-round pick Pernell McPhee showed a lot of effort in recording six sacks last season and could move into Redding's spot in the starting lineup. Redding, who is an unrestricted free agent, is coming off a strong year but he turns 32 during next season.

3. STEELERS: Pittsburgh's defensive front did an admirable job considering the situation: Every starter missed at least two games with an injury. Defensive end Brett Keisel had the best year of anyone in this group with three sacks, nine passes batted down and two forced fumbles. Nose tackle Casey Hampton's forgettable season ended with an ACL injury, which puts his future with the Steelers in question. Ziggy Hood was more than solid as he replaced an injured starter (Aaron Smith) for the second straight season. Smith and backup nose tackle Chris Hoke both ended the season on injured reserve. The Pittsburgh run defense finished No. 8 in the NFL. What could change: Plenty with this group. Keisel is the only starter locked into returning to the same spot. Hood could move to nose tackle if the Steelers don't address this position early in the draft. Cameron Heyward, a first-round pick from a year ago, would then take over at the other defensive end spot.

4. BROWNS: There's no shame for being last in this division at defensive line. Cleveland has a young and promising defensive front that could soon develop into one of the best in the AFC North. Defensive end Jabaal Sheard was the best rookie defensive player in the division, recording a team-high 8.5 sacks and five forced fumbles. Nose tackle Ahtyba Rubin is among the most underrated players in the league and is deceptively quick for a 330-pound lineman. First-round pick Phil Taylor hit the rookie wall, but he should be a dependable starter for years. The biggest disappointment was defensive end Jayme Mitchell, who was benched for his poor play. The Browns' run defense was gashed often, and it showed in the number of 100-yard rushers allowed. What could change: The Browns need to improve at right defensive end, so offenses can't focus all of their attention on Sheard on the other side. Cleveland made strides in its pass rush, but it still needs more help in getting to the quarterback.

Monday: Special teams

For Wednesday: Linebackers

Jamison Hensley

ESPN Ravens reporter

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