Rough start for AFC North defenses

September, 19, 2012
9/19/12
9:30
AM ET
The AFC North is a division known for its defenses. Last year, all four teams finished in the top 10 in defense and there was a point during the season when they held the top four spots.

The 2012 season has been a complete turnaround so far. Three teams -- the Ravens, Browns and Bengals -- rank in the bottom six in defense. They're all giving up more than 400 yards per game. The Steelers, who had the top-ranked defense a year ago, are currently at No. 7.

There hasn't been a major turnover in starting lineups. Each team that has dropped in the defensive rankings didn't return two starters: Bengals (defensive end Frostee Rucker, safety Chris Crocker), Browns (defensive end Jayme Mitchell and safety Mike Adams) and Ravens (defensive end Cory Redding and linebacker Jarret Johnson).

What has really hurt these defenses has been injuries. Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, is out indefinitely with an Achilles injury for the Ravens. For the Browns, outside linebacker Chris Gocong (Achilles) is out for the season and defensive tackle Phil Taylor (torn pectoral muscle) will miss at least the first six games. And the Bengals have been without defensive end Carlos Dunlap (knee) for two games and won't have outside linebacker Thomas Howard (knee), last year's leading tackler, for the rest of the season.

The Steelers, whose defense hasn't plummeted like the rest of the AFC North, had two former defensive players of the year (James Harrison and Troy Polamalu) on the sideline Sunday.

The loss of those starters has impacted the statistics and the results of games. The Ravens' defense, which has gone from No. 3 to No. 27, gave up the winning touchdown to Michael Vick with 1:55 remaining last Sunday. The Bengals' defense, which has fallen from No. 7 to No. 30, has allowed its first two opponents to gain more than 400 yards for the second time since 1981, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. And the Browns' defense, which has dropped from No. 10 to No. 29, surrendered the winning touchdown pass from Vick with 1:18 left in the season opener.

I thought this was going to be a tougher year for defenses in this division just based on the schedule. Unlike last year, when they faced mediocre offenses in the NFC West and AFC South, the AFC North defenses are lining up against Vick, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Tony Romo. But no one predicted such a rough start for a division that prides itself on dominating defenses.

Jamison Hensley

ESPN Ravens reporter

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