For nearly two decades, Ray Lewis and the Baltimore Ravens took down opponent after opponent with their stalwart defense. Brutal December and January football has long been a hallmark of the AFC North, with the division consistently placing in the top three or top five rankings for best defensive divisions.
The AFC North was recently selected as Pro Football Focus' toughest defensive division to play in for the upcoming 2023 season. As the more seasoned defensive lineman in the division have found new homes or are getting older, these once-concrete fronts are beginning to change and get younger as a more pass-heavy era of football is taking over the league.
Let's take a look at which teams in the AFC North have been able to retain superstars in their prime, and which ones are looking at a potential rebuild.
4. Baltimore Ravens
Although it might surprise some to see the Ravens in the bottom ranking for the division, their defensive line lacks superstars. The majority of their damage comes from their stingy secondary, with many of their defensive line veterans leaving the past few years.
Last summer saw Baltimore cutting ties with Matt Judon and Derek Wolfe, and 2023 marked the departure of veteran mainstay Calais Campbell. Even though Campbell is entering his age 37 season, at 6' 8" he was a near immovable presence on the defensive line for the Ravens.
Nose tackle Michael Pierce and defensive ends Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington are Baltimore's main forces on the defensive lines. Pierce is recovering from a season-ending injury while he approaches his 31st birthday. With just eight sacks in his seven-year career, it seems unlikely he will have a significant presence in 2023.
However, Madubuike has consistently improved and increased his sack totals each of the last three years, earning nine assists and six sacks in 2022. Unlike Madubuike, Washington has just two sacks in three years. While part of this is due to limited play, this isn't the type of production that you would want from your primary pass-rushers. However, Baltimore has help elsewhere on the defensive line.
While the front three in Baltimore leave something to be desired, they have a stud linebacker that loves to rush the quarterback. Roquan Smith, who was traded for midseason, entirely changes the Ravens' pass rush for the better.
In 2023, Smith led all linebackers with 55 assists and tied for the most interceptions by a linebacker at three. At just 26 years old, Smith is a valuable piece that helps a weaker pass-rush. However, AFC North fans should be keeping an eye on 2021 first-rounder Odafe Oweh. Although Oweh has not topped five sacks in either season, he could have a much larger role in 2021.
Even though these linebackers aid the Ravens' pass rush, Baltimore has been unable to balance veteran departures in recent years, and simply no longer has the defensive line that haunted AFC North fans for over a decade.