- Coley Harvey, ESPN Staff Writer
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Stingy defense has long been a hallmark of teams in the AFC North.
Last season, though, three of the division's teams were in the lower half of the league's total defensive rankings, allowing an average of 350 yards or more per game. The Pittsburgh Steelers (18th), Cincinnati Bengals (22nd) and Cleveland Browns (23rd) claimed the undesirable honors. Only the Baltimore Ravens, at eighth, ranked among the league's best defensively.
Those rankings were a sharp departure from the year before, when all four teams ranged from third (Cincinnati) to 13th (Pittsburgh) in total defense.
As nearly the entire division tries to reinvent itself defensively this season, which team (of the three subpar defenses from last year) has the best chance of seeing a turnaround in 2015 that could put it in the top 10? ESPN AFC North reporters made their picks:
Coley Harvey, Bengals reporter: This seems like a no-brainer. Between the Steelers, Browns and Bengals, Cincinnati's defense has the best chance to make the jump back into the top 10. That's mainly because for so long the Bengals were already there. Remember, they had a top-10 defensive unit for several seasons before a change at coordinator ushered in transition last year. Under former defensive coordinator (and current Minnesota Vikings head coach) Mike Zimmer, the Bengals were seventh, sixth and third in total defense in 2011, 2012 and 2013. While it's easy to pin last year's 22nd ranking on Paul Guenther, who was in his first season as a coordinator, the Bengals' drop-off was the product of a few other factors. They had injuries at key linebacker positions and had trouble replacing one of their top pass-rushers, who bolted in free agency the prior offseason. This year, they anticipate being back at full health throughout the secondary, and that pass-rusher, defensive end Michael Johnson, is back. Unlike the Browns and Steelers, who have to replace veterans at multiple positions this season, the Bengals have to fill only one spot: the left corner position vacated by 36-year-old Terence Newman. Cincinnati has the best chance to be dramatically better defensively this season.
Jamison Hensley, Ravens reporter: Cleveland's defense is ready to reach new heights, and it has nothing to do with the way Danny Shelton lifted up Roger Goodell on draft day. The Browns have the potential to field one of the best secondaries in the league. Three starting defensive backs (Joe Haden, Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson) are back after making the Pro Bowl in 2014. This secondary will be better if free agent Tramon Williams lives up to his contract ($7 million per season) and Justin Gilbert matures after being a disappointing top-10 pick. The sore spots last season were the Browns' run defense and pass rush. That's why the Browns used the No. 12 overall pick on Shelton, a nose tackle, and a second-round pick on outside linebacker Nate Orchard. The Browns produced 31 sacks last year , and Orchard and Shelton combined for 27.5 sacks last season. The improvement on defense doesn't mean the Browns will win more than a handful of games. The Browns are hamstrung by an offense that lacks a quarterback and playmakers. But the Browns wisely invested in their defense in free agency and the draft, and that will propel Cleveland back into the top 10.
Pat McManamon, Browns reporter: Being from Cleveland, it would be nice to say the Browns here. Their secondary is sound, they invested heavily in the defensive line in the draft and free agency, and they added linebacker Nate Orchard to go with Barkevious Mingo, Paul Kruger, Karlos Dansby and Craig Robertson. That's a good place to start. The problem is that the Browns ranked 32nd against the run last season with a defense that was much like this one. Until the Browns actually stop the run, they can't be considered top-10. Pittsburgh is going through transition, from Dick LeBeau to Keith Butler. From Troy Polamalu to Mike Mitchell. From a stellar linebacking crew to young guys who are developing (Bud Dupree, Ryan Shazier and Jarvis Jones). That's a lot of change for any group. Which leaves Cincinnati as the last team standing -- and the most logical choice to improve. The Bengals re-signed Michael Johnson after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers released him. That fortifies a line that includes Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Domata Peko. Vontaze Burfict is a force, and the Bengals as a unit got better as the 2014 season went on -- a natural occurrence after the departure of Mike Zimmer to become Vikings coach. In the first half of the season, the Bengals gave up 23.8 first downs, 357.4 yards and 23.4 points per game. In the second half, the numbers dropped to 18.4 first downs, 323.4 yards and 19.6 points per game. With Atkins one more year removed from ACL surgery, the addition of Johnson and the players as a whole becoming more comfortable with coordinator Paul Guenther, Cincinnati will be the team that jumps back into the top 10.
Which AFC North team has the best chance of seeing a turnaround at defense in 2015 that could put it in the top 10?