Quietly, the interior defensive line across the AFC North is pretty darn solid, both on paper and on film.
Though division stalwart Geno Atkins departed Cincinnati this offseason, taking away one of the longtime headliners at the position, the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens all possess a deep, talented group of interior defensive linemen who can stop the run and get after the passer week after week, providing the four teams with deep overall defensive line groups.
Last week, I took a look at the EDGE position in the AFC North, so today let’s slide inside to the oft-overlooked interior defensive linemen.
1. PITTSBURGH STEELERS
When Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are healthy, there are few interior defensive line duos better in the NFL overall.
Heyward and Tuitt are not only strong against the run, but they’re also able to get after the passer in a big way, providing the Steelers with a high level of interior pass rush making the Steelers’ front seven a dominant group overall.
Any time a team can deploy two All-Pro caliber interior defensive linemen like this, it’s hard to top. Add in the return of Tyson Alualu in free agency and this group goes over the top. Again, health is a huge determining factor, but it’s so hard to find a better group of interior defensive linemen in the AFC North, simply due to the high ceilings and name recognition this group has in Pittsburgh.
Depth is certainly a concern though, but that doesn’t quite matter in this ranking at the top due to the firepower the Steelers have. Behind the trio, Pittsburgh turns to veteran Chris Wormley for depth at all three spots, while second-year pro Carlos Davis looks to take a leap behind Alualu at nose tackle.
Rookie Isaiahh Loudermilk should see some run as a 5-tech this year, which will give the Steelers that planet theory guy as depth, and I am still intrigued by Demarcus Christmas inside as a possible practice squad guy that could work his way onto the roster.
I’d be remiss not to mention Isaiah Buggs here, but I think he’s in a huge battle for his job. He’s a good run defender overall but has not given the Steelers a thing as a pass rusher and is super inconsistent overall.
2. CINCINNATI BENGALS
Though D.J. Reader missed much of the 2020 season due to a torn quadriceps, he returns this season and profiles as one of the best overall interior defensive linemen in the AFC North, right behind Heyward and Tuitt in Pittsburgh. While he won’t have Geno Atkins next to him, the Bengals did a great job adding former Brown Larry Ogunjobi in free agency, giving them that interior pass rusher next to Reader, who is more of a run stopper than pass rusher.
That duo alone is pretty darn good inside Cincinnati’s 4-3 scheme. When their interior defensive line is good, the rest of the Bengals’ defense figures it out. That could be the case this season.
While the duo isn’t on par with Tuitt and Heyward, the depth in Cincinnati is good. The Bengals did a great job drafting rookie Tyler Shelvin out of LSU, and see veteran Mike Daniels return for another year, giving the Bengals at least four interior defensive linemen to rotate and keep fresh throughout games.
Then there’s depth pieces in Josh Tupou and Renell Wren, along with Khalil Mackenzie that could be battling for the fifth defensive tackle job. Having that type of depth is impressive for the Bengals at defensive tackle.
3. CLEVELAND BROWNS
Cleveland lost Ogunjobi to the Bengals in free agency, but they did a great job adding Malik Jackson in free agency from the Philadelphia Eagles, giving the Browns that explosive interior pass rusher once again.
Though Jackson has seen his play fall off a bit since his career year in Jacksonville, he’ll be in a more prominent role in Cleveland after being a rotational piece in Philadelphia that didn’t quite fit what the Eagles wanted to do. In Cleveland, he’ll play the Ogunjobi role and be turned loose inside next to run-stopper Andrew Billings.
Billings, a former Bengal, is healthy heading into training camp after opting out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns. When healthy and on the field, he’s a good run stopper and provides some juice as a pass rusher, though he’s much better shooting gaps and tying up blockers in the run game.
Depth is pretty intriguing in Cleveland inside. I loved the selection of Ohio State’s Tommy Togiai in the draft, and the Browns did a great job adding Florida State standout Marvin Wilson as an undrafted free agent, giving them serious bulk and athleticism inside, should both pan out.
Cleveland also brings back 2020 draft pick Jordan Elliott and veteran Sheldon Day inside, as well as oft-maligned interior defensive lineman Malik McDowell, making for a deep, intriguing group that should be watched closely during Cleveland’s training camp to see who makes the roster.
4. BALTIMORE RAVENS
Just a few short years ago I held this position group in high regard when it came to the Ravens. Now, the Ravens find themselves at the bottom of this list ahead of the 2021 season.
Veteran run stopper Brandon Williams returns for his ninth season, but his best days are behind him. At one point he was arguably the strongest defensive tackle in football and one of the best run stoppers in the game, but injuries and age have sapped him of his power and prowess. He’s still a solid defensive tackle, but he’s not on par with the top tier in the division anymore.
Fortunately for Baltimore, they’ve invested heavily in the position the last few years. Now it’s up to the development of guys like Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington to keep this group afloat.
Both are intriguing athletes that are more pass rushers than run stoppers, but they fit the new mold the Ravens are searching for. However, the group overall, including veteran Justin Ellis and second-year player Aaron Crawford, combined for just one sack in 2020, which came from Madubuike in a limited role.
While that’s not what the Ravens really ask from their interior defensive linemen, that’s a startlingly poor number. Baltimore will need more from Madubuike and Washington in that department in 2021, especially after losing so much EDGE in the offseason.
Calais Campbell will undoubtedly help in that department. He’s still a great player overall and is a guy teams have to scheme to take away in the Ravens’ front seven. Opposite Campbell, Derek Wolfe was a terrific run defender last season, posting the best run defense grade of his career from PFF, but his pass rush grade was the lowest of his career. Add in the fact that he struggles to stay healthy — and that Campbell and Wolfe are the ONLY two defensive ends on the roster at the moment — and depth is a very real concern in Baltimore.
2020 AFC North DL rankings:
No. 1 – Cleveland Browns
No. 2 – Cincinnati Bengals
No. 3 – Pittsburgh Steelers
No. 4 – Baltimore Ravens