All-AFC North team: Defense

January, 26, 2012
1/26/12
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Haloti Ngata, D'Qwell Jackson and Ryan ClarkIcon SMIHaloti Ngata, D'Qwell Jackson and Ryan Clark earned spots on the All-AFC North team.

It's time to unveil the defense for my All-AFC North team, which is based on performance this season, and not past reputation. There were many difficult decisions, and there should be. All four defenses in the division finished in the top 10 (Pittsburgh was No. 1, Baltimore was No. 3, Cincinnati was No. 7 and Cleveland was No. 10).

The All-AFC North team will wrap up tomorrow with offense. Of course, tell me who I left off, who should have been on and any other opinions in the comments section below.

Defensive end: Carlos Dunlap, Bengals. Tough call over Pittsburgh's Brett Keisel. Before being slowed by a hamstring injury, Dunlap was getting to the quarterback like no other defensive end in the division. Despite missing four games, he recorded 4.5 sacks and led the Bengals with 27 quarterback pressures, which was four more than anyone else on the team.

Nose tackle/defensive tackle: Haloti Ngata, Ravens. He didn't seem as dominant as last year, but it's hard to argue his impact. Ngata finished with five sacks, five batted-down passes, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. He was a cog in the middle for the NFL's second-ranked run defense and he returned a fumble 28 yards for his first career touchdown in Week 3. Some would go with Casey Hampton, but he slipped at the age of 34 and so did the Steelers' run defense, which gave up 33 percent more yards rushing than a year ago.

[+] EnlargeGeno Atkins
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PresswireGeno Atkins tied for the NFL lead in sacks by an interior lineman with 7.5.
Defensive tackle: Geno Atkins, Bengals. While the Bengals' run defense faltered in the second half of the season, their front four pressured the quarterback like no other in the AFC North and perhaps the league. And Atkins was a huge part of that by collapsing the pocket up the middle. He tied Oakland's Tommy Kelly for sacks by an interior lineman in the NFL with 7.5. He is the first Bengals interior lineman to top the team in sacks since 1996, when Dan Wilkinson led with 6.5.

Outside linebacker: Terrell Suggs, Ravens. He was the best defensive player in the division and arguably the best in the NFL this season. Suggs made an impact all over the field, becoming the only NFL player this season to finish with at least five sacks, five passes defensed and five forced fumbles. Critics would argue that his production came in three games (season opener against Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Indianapolis), where he totaled nine sacks and six forced fumbles.

Inside linebacker: D'Qwell Jackson, Browns. The comeback player in the division, Jackson finished second in the NFL with 158 tackles. That's 58 more tackles than anyone else in the AFC North. This is after Jackson missed the previous 26 games due to two separate pectoral injuries. He also tied for the AFC lead with three defensive fumble recoveries.

Inside linebacker: Ray Lewis, Ravens. There's no doubt that Lewis isn't the same player that he was five years ago and he had trouble getting off blocks after returning from a toe injury. But there's not a better run stopper in the division. With Lewis as the leading tackler, the Ravens finished tied for first in fewest rushing yards per carry (3.5) and second in fewest rushing yards per game (92.5).

Outside linebacker: James Harrison, Steelers. Many would consider nine sacks (which tied for tops on the Steelers) and two forced fumbles a solid season. But Harrison did this after having two back surgeries in March, missing four games with a fractured orbital bone near his right eye and getting suspended one game following his infamous hit on Colt McCoy. Harrison's ability to get to the quarterback was a big reason Pittsburgh finished No. 1 in the NFL in pass defense.

Cornerback: Lardarius Webb, Ravens. If you didn't know what a great season Webb was having, you did in the postseason when he picked off three passes. He led the division with five interceptions and 20 passes defensed. Not bad for a defender that everyone projected to be a nickelback this season. The Ravens also gave up the fewest touchdown passes this season (11).

Cornerback: Joe Haden, Browns. Haden was the headliner for the NFL's second-ranked pass defense and has the potential to be a shutdown corner. He finished sixth in the league (and second in the AFC North) with 19 passes defensed this season. Haden had three games this year with at least three pass breakups, including a career-high five in the season opener against Cincinnati. There were some slips, such as allowing a game-turning catch to A.J. Green and a game-sealing touchdown to Antonio Brown. Haden barely edged out Pittsburgh's Ike Taylor for this spot.

Strong safety: Troy Polamalu, Steelers. This wasn't his finest season, but Polamalu was a major presence on the NFL's top-ranked defense. Always lurking around the line of scrimmage, he finished third on the team with 91 tackles to go along with two interceptions and one sack. His best game came in the last one of the regular season, when his interception set up the game's only touchdown and his sack came from him breaking through the line after perfectly timing the snap.

Free safety: Ryan Clark, Steelers. The obvious choice would be Ed Reed. But even Reed would acknowledge that he struggled for most of the season. He managed three interceptions, his fewest for a 16-game season, and missed tackles toward the end of the season because of a shoulder injury. Clark enjoyed the best season of his 10-year career, leading the NFL's top-ranked defense with 100 tackles. That also ranked second in the AFC North. If you questioned Clark's impact, look at how the Steelers fared without him in Denver, when he had to sit out the playoff game because of a blood condition.

Jamison Hensley

ESPN Ravens reporter

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