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Ranking AFC North rosters before the 2021 season: The Defenses

How do your favorite Steelers compare to the rest of the division?

Wild Card Round - Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The NFL regular season is finally here!

In this upcoming 2021 season, one of the biggest factors in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ success will be how they perform in the AFC North. So, as teams put the finishing touches on their final 53-man rosters and practice squads, I’ve attempted to objectively rank and compare each AFC North teams’ positional groups to the others.

Let’s take a look at the defenses:


Interior Defensive Line

  1. Pittsburgh Steelers (Cameron Heyward, Tyson Alualu, Chris Wormley, Isaiahh Loudermilk, Carlos Davis, Isaiah Buggs)
  2. Baltimore Ravens (Brandon Williams, Calais Campbell, Derek Wolfe, Justin Madibuike, Broderick Washington)
  3. Cincinnati Bengals (Larry Ogunjobi, D.J. Reader, B.J. Hill, Tyler Shelvin, Josh Tupou)
  4. Cleveland Browns (Andrew Billings, Malik Jackson, Malik McDowell, Jordan Elliott, Tommy Togiai)

Even with Stephon Tuitt on Injured Reserve (he’s set to return early in the season), the Steelers take the top spot due to the star power of Cam Heyward and the strong depth behind him. In second place are the Ravens, who have a fantastic nose tackle in Brandon Williams and the talented Calais Campbell. The Bengals and Browns are fairly even, but the underrated tandem of Ogunjobi and Reader take the third spot for Cincinnati.

Will this ranking change anytime soon?

When Stephon Tuitt makes it back into the Steelers’ lineup, they’ll solidify their place on the top of the rankings. The Ravens may challenge for that spot in the meantime. The Bengals and Browns are closely matched at this position, with solid starters and depth with plenty of potential.

Poll

Where do you think the Steelers’ interior defensive line ranks in the AFC North?

  • 86%
    First
    (263 votes)
  • 8%
    Second
    (26 votes)
  • 3%
    Third
    (12 votes)
  • 1%
    Fourth
    (4 votes)
305 votes total Vote Now

EDGE/Outside Linebackers

  1. Steelers (T.J. Watt, Alex Highsmith, Melvin Ingram III, Jamir Jones)
  2. Browns (Myles Garrett, Jadeveon Clowney, Takkarist McKinley, Joe Jackson)
  3. Bengals (Trey Hendrickson, Sam Hubbard, Cam Sample, Darius Hodge, Wyatt Ray)
  4. Ravens (Justin Houston, Odafe Oweh, Pernell McPhee, Tyus Bowser, Jaylon Ferguson, Daelin Hayes)

All four teams have strong groups, but the Steelers take the first spot yet again with an All-Pro in T.J. Watt and the up-and-coming Alex Highsmith. Veteran Pro-Bowler Melvin Ingram provides some fantastic depth, as well. In second are the Browns with one of the league’s best pass-rushers in Myles Garrett and the talented Jadeveon Clowney. For the Bengals, the addition of Trey Hendrickson greatly upgrades a group already including Sam Hubbard. The Ravens, although in last place, boast a strong group with veteran Justin Houston and some very solid depth.

Will this ranking change anytime soon?

The Steelers and Browns will likely remain in the top two spots thanks to the star power of Watt and Garrett, but there is a possibility that the tandem of Garrett and Clowney could usurp the Steelers while Watt gets back into playing shape following his limited practice during training camp. The Ravens could possibly take the third spot if rookie Odafe Oweh can his develop his raw athleticism into something special.

Poll

Where do you think the Steelers’ outside linebackers rank in the AFC North?

  • 85%
    First
    (255 votes)
  • 10%
    Second
    (32 votes)
  • 1%
    Third
    (5 votes)
  • 1%
    Fourth
    (5 votes)
297 votes total Vote Now

Linebackers

  1. Browns (Mack Wilson, Anthony Walker, Sione Takitaki, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Malcom Smith, Tony Fields II)
  2. Steelers (Devin Bush, Joe Schobert, Marcus Allen, Robert Spillane, Ulysees Gilbert III, Buddy Johnson)
  3. Ravens (Patrick Queen, Malik Harrison, Chris Board, Kristian Welch)
  4. Bengals (Germaine Pratt, Logan Wilson, Akeem Davis-Gaither, Jordan Evans, Markus Bailey)

At face value the Steelers have the best inside linebacker room in the division, but following an absolutely terrible preseason from the positional group, they fall down in the rankings for now. Instead, the Browns take the first spot. They lack a true premier linebacker like the Steelers’ Devin Bush or Patrick Queen of the Ravens, but are insanely deep instead. Cleveland has four starting-caliber defenders on their depth chart, including rookie Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and his extremely high ceiling.

For the Steelers, the addition of Joe Schobert keeps the team from falling lower in the rankings as Devin Bush continues to get back into form as he recovers from an ACL injury. In third, the Ravens’ linebacker room is led by Patrick Queen who had a strong 2020 and an even stronger preseason in 2021. However, there’s not a lot of great depth behind him as Malik Harrison is largely unproven. In last place are the Bengals, who have a strong linebacker room themselves, but the talent of Pratt and Wilson isn’t quite enough to overtake the rest of the division.

Will this ranking change anytime soon?

These rankings were perhaps the hardest to decide on in this article, as all four linebacker rooms are quite talented and fairly close to each other in quality. It’s anyone’s guess how these rankings will look throughout the season.

Poll

Where do you think the Steelers’ linebackers rank in the AFC North?

  • 54%
    First
    (151 votes)
  • 31%
    Second
    (86 votes)
  • 11%
    Third
    (33 votes)
  • 2%
    Fourth
    (6 votes)
276 votes total Vote Now

Cornerbacks

  1. Ravens (Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters (now on IR), Jimmy Smith, Tavon Young, Anthony Averett, Chris Westry)
  2. Browns (Denzel Ward, Greg Newsome II, Greedy Williams, Troy Hill, A.J. Green)
  3. Bengals (Mike Hilton, Trae Waynes, Chidobe Awuzie, Eli Apple, Darius Phillips, Jalen Davis, Nick McCloud)
  4. Steelers (Joe Haden, Cameron Sutton, James Pierre, Akhello Witherspoon, Justin Layne, Arthur Maulet)

Despite the fact Marcus Peters is out for the season, the Ravens still take the top spot due to the talent of Marlon Humphrey and the solid depth behind him. Denzel Ward and the Browns take second with some talented young corners in Newsome and Williams filling out the defensive backfield. Having signed one of the league’s best slot corners in Mike Hilton, the Bengals take third, while the Steelers, having lost two of their three best corners during the offseason, end up in last. Joe Haden is still a quality starter, but the depth behind him is shaky at best.

Will this ranking change anytime soon?

Without Marcus Peters, the Ravens could certainly fall in the rankings, while the Browns, Bengals, and Steelers all have a chance at rising. In fact, it mostly comes down to which team’s depth can step up the most. It will be interesting to watch the AFC North cornerbacks in 2021.

Poll

Where do you think the Steelers’ cornerbacks rank in the AFC North?

  • 12%
    First
    (36 votes)
  • 23%
    Second
    (66 votes)
  • 42%
    Third
    (119 votes)
  • 21%
    Fourth
    (59 votes)
280 votes total Vote Now

Safeties

  1. Steelers (Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds, Miles Killebrew, Tre Norwood)
  2. Bengals (Jessie Bates III, Vonn Bell, Ricardo Allen, Brandon Wilson)
  3. Browns (Ronnie Harrison Jr., John Johnson III, Grant Delpit, M.J. Stewart Jr., Richard LeCounte III)
  4. Ravens (Chuck Clark, DeShon Elliott, Geno Stone, Brandon Stephens, Ar’Darius Washington)

The playmaking Minkah Fitzpatrick and often-overlooked Terrell Edmunds are a quality safety tandem that give the Steelers the top spot on this list. Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell of the Bengals aren’t far behind however, with Bates having proven to be one of NFL’s best safeties. In third place, the Browns are deep at the position but lack a true star, while the Ravens have a solid but unspectacular group at the position.

Will this ranking change anytime soon?

If the Steelers end up signing Karl Joseph from their practice squad, they will further maintain their first-place spot. The Bengals will likely stay in second, but the Browns and Ravens may flip-flop throughout the season.

Poll

Where do you think the Steelers’ safeties rank in the AFC North?

  • 82%
    First
    (231 votes)
  • 10%
    Second
    (28 votes)
  • 4%
    Third
    (13 votes)
  • 2%
    Fourth
    (7 votes)
279 votes total Vote Now

The Steelers come out of the rankings with a clearly strong front seven, but their defensive backfield has some major questions throughout.

Does this article seem familiar? An edition was published before the 2020 season, which you can view here to see how AFC North rosters have changed since last year.

You can also view this year’s edition covering the offenses here: