Last week, we brought you the All-AFC North offensive team. Now it’s the defense’s turn as we bring you the best players in the division from the other side of the ball, using a 3-4 defensive alignment. While the offensive side was well-divided among the four teams, the defense is more concentrated among the best two teams in the division — the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers.
Cameron Heyward, defensive end
The Steelers’ defense struggled at times this season, but it had nothing to do with Heyward. His impact far exceeded his statline, although 54 tackles and seven sacks is nothing to sneeze at for a 3-4 defensive end. Heyward also brings leadership and non-stop hustle, which makes the fact that he played 88 percent of the team’s defensive snaps even more impressive.
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Carlos Dunlap, defensive end
Dunlap amassed a career-best 13.5 sacks for the Bengals on his way to his first selection to the Pro Bowl. After never reaching double-digit sacks in his previous five seasons, Dunlap took the next step toward becoming a dominant pass rusher in the league.
Geno Atkins, defensive tackle
Atkins rebounded from an off-year in major fashion, leading all defensive tackles in the NFL with 11 sacks. Atkins was a dominant force in both phases, anchoring a Bengals defense that was seventh in the league against the run.
Vontaze Burfict, outside linebacker
Burfict missed the first six games of the season, but his impact on the Bengals defense grew as he got back up to speed coming off microfracture knee surgery. He still finished fourth on the team in tackles with 74 despite being eased back into the lineup. Unfortunately for Cincinnati, Burfict’s season will be remembered for his role in the epic postseason meltdown against Pittsburgh.
James Harrison, outside linebacker
Harrison once again defied his age with another strong season on the Steelers defense. The 37-year-old veteran finished with five sacks while playing 55 percent of the defensive snaps, much more reps than even the coaching staff anticipated. Harrison also had 45 combined sacks, hit and hurries, according to Pro Football Focus. Now the big question is if Harrison will return for a 14th season.
Lawrence Timmons, inside linebacker
Timmons led the Steelers with 119 tackles, good for 12th best in the league. He also added five sacks and seven passes defensed, once again making his presence felt in the middle of the defense.
Karlos Dansby, inside linebacker
Dansby was one of the few bright spots on a Browns defense that finished among the worst in the league. He led the team with 108 tackles, adding three intereceptions, two forced fumbles and two touchdowns.
Browns linebacker Karlos Dansby with one is his two pick sixes in 2015.
Adam Jones, cornerback
Jones was a cut above every other corner in the division despite being hobbled by a foot injury in the second half. He was excellent in pass coverage and had his best season since arriving in Cincinnati in 2010. Like Burfict, Jones’ exceptional season will be overshadowed by his costly penalty at the end of the wild card loss to Pittsburgh.
William Gay, cornerback
Gay gets the nod here almost by default. Baltimore’s Jimmy Smith struggled mightily in the first half and Browns corner Joe Haden was burned frequently before succumbing to a rash of injuries. The veteran Gay was the most consistent cover man for a Steelers secondary that was overmatched throughout the season. He played 96 percent of the defensive snaps and finished the season with two interceptions, seven passes defensed and an opposing quarterback rating of 75.2, according to Pro Football Focus.
Reggie Nelson, free safety
Nelson led the league with a career-best eight interceptions. He also was a strong physical presence over the middle for the Bengals, as evidenced by this textbook drilling of Broncos tight end Owen Daniels.
Bengals safety Reggie Nelson separates Broncos tight end Owen Daniels from ball.
Will Hill, strong safety
Hill was Pro Football Focus’ second-rated safety in the division behind Nelson. Hill was solid for the Bengals against the pass, but an even greater force against the run. While he was a steadying presence on a defense that struggled at times, the highlight of Hill’s season came on special teams, when he returned a blocked field 64 yards for a touchdown as time expired to shock the Browns.