Comparing the AFC North Defenses in 2008

Offense makes highlights, but defense wins championships. The Pittsburgh Steelers saw that this past February and the Baltimore Ravens have always seemed to live by that mantra. So how did the defenses in the AFC North stack up in 2008 and does that answer a lot of the questions as to where the four teams finished even though that doesn't even address the offensive side of the ball? Let's take a look at some statistics and rankings from NFL.com to see what happened last season on the defensive side of each team.

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens finished ranked numbers one and two overall in yards per game allowed. The Cincinnati Bengals did better than their record indicated but the Cleveland Browns were just woeful on defense.

Yards per game allowed:

#1: Pittsburgh - 237

#2: Baltimore- 261

#12: Cincinnati- 325

#26: Cleveland- 356

The difference between the Steelers and Ravens is similar to the difference between the Bengals and Browns. However, when you see that Cleveland is allowing over a hundred more yards per game than the Steelers and almost that much than the Ravens, the gap is huge.

Points per game allowed:

#1: Pittsburgh- 13.9

#3: Baltimore- 15.2

#16: Cincinnati- 21.9

#18: Cleveland- 22.8

Once again, not a huge difference between the top two and the same with the bottom two. But overall, giving up a touchdown more per game by the Bengals and Browns is easily the difference between contending and pretending.

Turnover Differential:

#3: Baltimore- +13

#8: Cleveland- +5

#11: Pittsburgh- +4

#20: Cincinnati- -2

A surprising change of rankings that has the Browns better than the Steelers, which absolutely shocked me. Then again, there was a stretch of games where Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger threw something like eight interceptions in three games. The Ravens take the number one spot in the division mostly on the strength of safety Ed Reed and his league leading nine interceptions.

Finally, I looked at an obscure category that no one seems to mention, and that is the number of plays from the line of scrimmage allowed. Check out these telltale numbers.

Scrimmage Plays Allowed:

#3: Baltimore- 928

#11: Pittsburgh- 974

#21: Cleveland- 1,004

#23: Cincinnati- 1,013

This shows that the Bengals allowed the opposing teams to run 85 more plays than the Ravens, which is an average of five plays per game. That might not seem a lot to you, but remember that that is an average, and also comes out to be more than an extra offensive series a game for the opposition. How many games did the Bengals and Browns lose in the last minutes that an extra series or two by the opponents probably made the difference? Keeping the opponents' offense off the field is one of the biggest keys to the game in the NFL.

The Ravens have always had that bend-but-don't-break attitude. Feel free to try to move between the twenties, but just try to put it in the end zone against us. That's why I've always argued that the number one defensive statistic that truly matters is points per game. Ranking as the top few teams year in and out will always make the Ravens (and the Steelers) a competitive team deep into the season, one that most other NFL teams do not like to see on their schedules.

These statistics prove why Baltimore and ultimately Pittsburgh, deserved the final standings that they earned in 2008. Can they be repeated in 2009? The Ravens, Steelers and their fans certainly think and hope so. The Bengals and  Browns, along with their fans, certainly hope not.

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