Battle of the AFC North Defensive Fronts: A Midseason Retrospective III

Andy Lyons

It's time to stop obsessing about the offense and have a look at the defense. The truth will out as we compare the current state of the defenses to my confident predictions of last summer.

The AFC North is not, surprisingly, set up so as to make my job simpler. Half the AFC North runs a 3-4 defense (the Ravens and the Steelers,) and the other half runs a 4-3 (the Browns and the Bengals.) But wait—it has gotten even more complicated since the sunny days of August, when I first attempted to figure out how one can reasonably compare a 3-4 and a 4-3 DE, for instance, since they have very different jobs. When I checked the Baltimore Ravens website for their depth chart last night I discovered they are now listing their players in a 4-3 alignment.

The stats sites such as Pro Football Focus are just as confused as I am, and it can be a bit of a challenge to figure out in which category they are putting a player. But I've got it sorted, so we'll get to the stats momentarily. (I leave it to you all to figure out how one can meaningfully compare players in a 3-4 and a 4-3 alignment.)

Before we look at the stats, we need to look at how the supposed starting lineups have changed. There were plenty of injuries to consider on the offensive side of the ball, but the defenses have suffered even more.

The Ravens were expected to begin the season with the following front seven:

LDE: Arthur Jones; NT: Terrence Cody; RDE: Haloti Ngata; LOLB: Paul Kruger; LILB: Ray Lewis; RILB: Jameel McClain; ROLB: Courtney Upshaw

The Bengals' line was supposed to look like this:

LDE: Carlos Dunlap; NT: Domata Peko; DT: Geno Atkins RDE: Michael Johnson Sam: Manny Lawson; Mike: Rey Maualuga Will: Thomas Howard

Cleveland's defensive front was as follows:

LDE: Jabaal Sheard; LDT: Ahtyba Rubin; RDT: John Hughes; RDE: Frostee Rucker; Sam: Chris Gocong (Kaluka Maiava) Mike: D'Qwell Jackson; Will: Scott Fujita (James-Michael Johnson)

And finally, Pittsburgh:

LDE: Ziggy Hood; NT: Steve McLendon; RDE: Brett Keisel; LOLB: LaMarr Woodley; LILB: Larry Foote; RILB: Lawrence Timmons; ROLB: James Harrison

So let's see who is actually manning the front seven:

As mentioned above, the Ravens now list their players as a 4-3. One of the biggest stories of the year was the injury to Ray Lewis several weeks ago. The Ravens have put him on designated IR, and he plans to return this season. He has been replaced, (and very possibly improved upon) by Dannell Ellerbe. Terrell Suggs, who declared he would be back from his Achilles tear this season, turned out to be right, and he has displaced Courtney Upshaw. Pernell McPhee won the job from Arthur Jones. And Ma'aka Kemoeatu has shoved Terrence Cody to one side to man the NT. (And that's a lot of boy to shove...) So their line now looks like this (changes in italics):

DE: Pernell McPhee; NT: Ma'ake Kemoeatu; DT: Haloti Ngata; "Rush:" Terrell Suggs: Sam: Paul Kruger; Mike: Jameel McClain; Will: Dannell Ellerbe

The only change to the Bengals' line was not unexpected—Vontaze Burfict, who tore up the field in training camp, replaced the injured Thomas Howard and now mans the Will.

LDE: Carlos Dunlap; NT: Domata Peko; DT: Geno Atkins RDE: Michael Johnson Sam: Manny Lawson; Mike: Rey Maualuga Will: Vontaze Burfict

Cleveland went through a great deal of upheaval. Right after I published the post on linebackers, Chris Gocong went down with a season-ending injury. At the time the speculation was Kaluka Maiava would replace him, which did indeed happen. James-Michael Johnson was the replacement for Scott Fujita while he served his Bountygate suspension, and Fujita came back, but sustained a season-ending neck injury in a game against the Giants, and consequently Johnson was re-inserted into the lineup. The only other change has been the replacement of DT John Hughes with rookie Billy Winn at the beginning of the season. (Hughes is now a backup.)

Here's the current line:

LDE: Jabaal Sheard; LDT: Ahtyba Rubin; RDT: Billy Winn; RDE: Frostee Rucker; Sam: James-Michael Johnson; Mike: D'Qwell Jackson; Will: Kaluka Maiava

The Steelers have been through a tremendous amount of upheaval in the defensive front, although it doesn't look like much has changed. NT Casey Hampton, who most of us assumed either wouldn't be ready to start the season and/or had lost his job to back-up Steve McLendon has played the great majority of the snaps this season, possibly to the detriment of the team. (But then the Steelers don't pay me to make these decisions.) Here's what the line looks like:


LDE: Ziggy Hood; NT: Casey Hampton; RDE: Brett Keisel; LOLB: LaMarr Woodley; LILB: Larry Foote; RILB: Lawrence Timmons; ROLB: James Harrison

Here's what I had to say about the various teams (a highly condensed version, you'll be glad to hear):

Defensive Lines:

It's time to man up and look at the data. (Or in my case, woman up.) I have to admit I wasn't expecting the Steelers to look so very weak in relation to the other teams. I don't believe they will be, either, but since I'm basing my assessments off of last year's data for everyone, so be it.

I ranked them as follows:

1. Cincinnati

2 T. Baltimore/Cleveland

4. Pittsburgh

Let's see if the mid-season numbers bear that out:

First, Football Outsider's ranking of the Defensive Lines. These are a ranking, so lower is better:

Fo_dline_medium

If one went by the Football Outsiders ranking, Cincinnati would still be No. 1, Pittsburgh would be No. 2, and Baltimore would just edge out Cleveland for third place. But let's look at some numbers for individual players.

Here are the Pro Football Focus Overall rating for DTs and DEs. Higher is better:

Pff_dline_medium

PFF does not like Pittsburgh's D-line. Not one little bit. They aren't terribly impressed with Cleveland, either. Cincinnati comes out the big winner. Looking at this, we would have to re-rank thus:

Cincinnati, Baltimore, Cleveland, Pittsburgh

Let's see what Advanced NFL Stats thinks of the defensive players. They have various ways they evaluate players, so I chose Expected Points Added per Game. Here's what it looks like—again, higher is better:

Screen_shot_2012-11-12_at_1

If we take this for our guide, Cincinnati still comes out on top, with Baltimore slightly ahead of Cleveland and Pittsburgh in the basement. Or rather like my original guesstimate. So take your pick. I'm inclined to say this last chart passes the eye test best, and that Baltimore edges out Cleveland for the No. 2 spot for the first half of the season.

Now, how about those Linebackers? Here is who was supposed to man the outside linebacking corps:

Baltimore: Paul Kruger, ? (there was no certainty as to who would replace Terrell Suggs at the other OLB position)

Cincinnati: Manny Lawson, Thomas Howard

Cleveland: Chris Gocong, Scott Fujita

Pittsburgh: James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley

Here's what I said in August:

This is the first time since the first couple of articles in the series I have been able to indulge my Steelers homerism in my ranking. Yes, there are concerns about depth, about the age of James Harrison, about the nagging injury problems last season, but based upon last year's performance it is reasonable to assume the Steelers will still have an excellent tandem at OLB.

Ordinarily the Ravens would be right in step. But given the uncertainty about Terrell Suggs seeing the field in 2012 combined with the total inexperience of Courtney Upshaw and the small sample size for Paul Kruger, it's difficult not to assume they will take a step back, especially early in the season.

Manny Lawson and Thomas Howard were the best pass defenders of our seven players last season. This wasn't enough to greatly impress the Advanced NFL Stats guys, but they were viewed favorably by PFR and PFF, and look to be a solid presence.

Chris Gocong was the highest ranked player in our group by Advanced NFL Stats. (Their No. 1 LB was Terrell Suggs.) Gocong was the lowest-ranked player by PFF, by far. PFR considered him to be as valuable last season as Woodley, Harrison, or Howard. So take your pick. Fujita, on the other hand, was not much liked by anyone, and he will probably be replaced by a raw fourth-round pick for the first three games of the season. So despite Gocong's good numbers, I think the Browns get moved down the line. Here is my off-the-cuff, gut-level ranking;

  1. Steelers
  2. Bengals
  • (T) Ravens, Browns
  • So how has it actually played out?

    For the Ravens, Terrell Suggs is back, but essentially as part of the D-line in the Ravens' seemingly solidifying hybrid 4-3. Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe are the Sam and Will, respectively.

    The Bengals made a change because of a season-ending injury to Thomas Howard in early September.

    The two linebackers mentioned for the Browns are no longer on the team; both of them are on IR, and Chris Gocong didn't play a single down.

    The "concerns about depth, about the age of James Harrison, about injury problems" certainly have all been fulfilled on the Steelers' squad this season. James Harrison missed several games after undergoing an arthroscopic knee surgery in mid-August, and his knee still is not back to anything like normal. LaMarr Woodley missed a game and parts of two others with yet another hamstring injury. Chris Carter, Harrison's designated replacement, has battled a hamstring injury since the Titans game, and Jason Worilds, Woodley's backup, missed all of training camp with a wrist injury, and has only slowly worked his way back onto the field. Back-up back-up Adrian Robinson has missed games with a concussion and a quad injury. It's safe to say all of the concerns expressed at the beginning of the season have reduced the effectiveness of the Steelers from the pass-rushing standpoint.

    Let's see what the mid-season numbers look like:

    Pff_olb_medium

    Screen_shot_2012-11-12_at_12

    It's interesting how differently PFF grades Harrison and Woodley. They look much more similar to the Advanced NFL Stats folks.

    According to PFF, each team has a useful player and a liability. If you average them out, Cleveland edges out the Steelers for No. 1, and there isn't much to choose between in Baltimore and the Browns. Or, oddly, just about what I predicted in August.

    The Advanced NFL Stats chart looks quite different, and gives us an order of Baltimore, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati. Take your pick.

    And finally, the Inside Linebackers. Here's who was supposed to man the middle:

    Baltimore: Ray Lewis, Jameel McClain

    Cincinnati: Rey Maualuga

    Cleveland: D'Qwell Jackson

    Pittsburgh: Larry Foote, Lawrence Timmons

    Here's where we ended up:

    Baltimore: Jameel McClain

    Cincinnati: Rey Maualuga

    Cleveland: D'Qwell Jackson

    Pittsburgh: Larry Foote, Lawrence Timmons

    No changes, other than the Ravens committing to a more 4-3 alignment, either by design or in the wake of the Ray Lewis injury.

    Here's what I said in August:

    I have a feeling 2012 is finally the year Ray Lewis is going to go the way of Hines Ward, James Farrior, Aaron Smith, and other legends of the AFC North. (Although in many ways Lewis is the biggest legend of them all.) If you look at Lewis's last four or five seasons you can note a gradual decline which has been picking up speed for the past few years, unlike Lewis himself. Father Time always wins in the end. McClain appears to be a player on the way up, and he should help compensate for Lewis's declining production.

    The Steelers have a similar issue with Larry Foote, but Foote is at least six years younger than Lewis. He was never anything like the kind of player Lewis was, even in his prime, but there are two indicators I think are interesting to consider. First of all, Foote left Pittsburgh for the ill-fated stint on the Lions because he wanted to be a starter. He came back to Pittsburgh because he decided he wanted to be on a winning team more than he wanted to be a starter, and he knew he was going to be in James Farrior's shadow. And even last year, when Farrior went quickly downhill, Foote mostly shared snaps with Farrior. This year he will be a starter, perhaps for the last time in his career. I've seen more than one comment by Steelers insiders such as Craig Wolfley to the effect that Foote is working and playing like a man possessed. I have this gut feeling we are going to see a final blaze of glory out of Foote.

    Conversely, Lawrence Timmons had seriously suppressed numbers because of being forced to play out of position for much of last season. Assuming this doesn't happen again, and I don't think it will, I believe Timmons will have a great season.

    Jackson played extremely well last year in Cleveland, and there is no reason (age, known injuries, etc.) to believe he won't go from strength to strength.

    Maualuga is the unknown quantity, in a sense. He's playing for a contract, and this might inspire him to new heights of achievement. On the other hand, he could find himself on the outside looking in if he doesn't deal with his off-field issues, and if Burfict is as impressive as reported. A position battle which continues into the season is not going to make for stability among the defensive front.

    Let's look at the numbers:

    Ilb_stats_medium

    There is substantial agreement about the value of McClain, Maualuga, and Jackson, and the usual lack of consensus about Steelers players. Prior to the season I ranked the ILBs thusly:

    Browns, Steelers, Ravens, Bengals.

    One could make an argument for reversing the Bengals and the Ravens, but my guess looks pretty good, at least according to the above charts.

    And, because we can't leave Ray Lewis out of it, much as many of us would like to, here are the same charts, except including Ray Lewis:

    Screen_shot_2012-11-12_at_1

    He was either the best or almost the worst. Take your pick.

    That will do it, finally, for the defensive front. When I recover I'll put up the defensive backs.

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