1. Pittsburgh Steelers
In the base 3-4 defense that the Steelers run, their defensive tackles are more than serviceable with AFC North veteran Larry Ogunjobi and the always-elite Cameron Heyward.
Ogunjobi's numbers never pop, but he is a solid starter to have on a team, with the real damage coming from Heyward who notched 23 sacks in the past two seasons combined and earned an elite 89.8 grade on Pro Football Focus in 2022.
Heyward is a central force on Pittsburgh's defensive line and has surprisingly shown no signs of slowing down at 34 years old. A 2023 second-rounder from Wisconsin, Keeanu Benton, is slated to be the Steelers' starting nose tackle. As an early Day 2 pick in the draft, Pittsburgh clearly believes in him, but it remains to be seen if his performance will justify his draft selection.
The Steelers' weakness, aside from the uncertainty regarding Benton, is the lack of depth behind each starter with Armon Watts and DeMarvin Leal seeming little more than names on a depth chart. The two players combined for a single sack this past year, and neither had a Pro Football Focus grade above 50.0, leaving much to be desired.
Although depth might be a concern with the front three, the outside linebackers are as great as ever. Pittsburgh boasts the top edge rusher in the league, T.J. Watt, who notched an absurd 22 sacks and five forced fumbles in 2021. Although an injury-riddled campaign this past season limited his time on the field, he still recorded seven sacks while missing seven weeks. Watt is a menace to offenses across the league and makes his name familiar to opposing AFC North fans as well.
Opposite Watt is the recipient of a four-year, $68 million extension in Alex Highsmith. His explosive pass-rushing skills notched fifteen sacks and five forced fumbles this past season, marking the best outside linebacker duo in the league.
However, as with the front three, the outside linebacker depth is made up of rookies and middle-round draft picks with low production. A promising rookie or veteran journeyman would balance this group if Watt were to go down again.
While the AFC North is still considered a top division in terms of its defensive line, the teams front players have changed quite a bit in recent years. Baltimore saw the departure of hallmark players whereas Cleveland signed veterans just a bit past their prime.
Cincinnati has kept a solid core of good players supplemented by the draft, whereas Pittsburgh has drafted and retained elite talent. Divisional games will without a doubt be a heavyweight match between teams and a viewing necessity.